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May 1, 2008

Purdue's nuclear engineering helps in industry resurgence

Vincent Bralts
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Nuclear engineering is becoming a hot career thanks to concerns over global warming, greenhouse gases and pollution.

"While the demand is mounting, we have a shortage of nuclear engineers," said Vincent Bralts, interim head of the School of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue University. "The shortage is exacerbated by the fact many of those in the field are now retiring."

Lisa M. Frehill, executive director of the Commission on Professions in Science and Technology, which collects and analyzes data on the science, engineering and technology work force, said the concern among those in the nuclear engineering field is how to fill the expected future jobs. She said a projected 15 to 30 new nuclear plants could be constructed in the coming years at the same time that roughly 30 percent of the current nuclear engineering work force is getting ready to retire.

"I think nuclear engineering will be such a growth area," Frehill said. "I recently learned about the planned increase in nuclear plants and my first thought was, 'Will we have the nuclear engineers to actually do this?' What some are saying is that we might have to import them from Russia. When you look at the price of oil today, you know it's not sustainable. When you talk to the people in nuclear energy, they are very positive right now."

According to the Graduating Engineering & Computer Careers online magazine, many countries like China and India are looking at nuclear power, not as an alternative, but as a primary energy source. said the number of nuclear jobs will grow over the next five years because of the wave of nuclear engineer retirees. The number of jobs will continue to grow rapidly if more energy companies move forward with plans for new nuclear plants.

"Construction of new nuclear capacity will have to be an international effort since the resources necessary will have to come from the global economy," said Peter Lyons, a commissioner with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "The domestic work force requirements are an enormous challenge, particularly since much of the experienced labor that built the last nuclear plants in the United States has reached retirement age."

Lyons said the commission is becoming a partner in an effort to train much-needed nuclear engineers by providing funds and undergraduate and graduate fellowships. He said well-trained professionals with an eye on safety will be an important element of the nuclear resurgence.

"The safety record for U.S. nuclear plants is very high," Bralts said. "The cost of producing electricity using nuclear power is about 2 cents per kilowatt hour, which is comparable to coal-based systems. The difference is that coal plants produce CO2 emissions where nuclear does not. Nuclear has one of the lowest costs and one of the smallest carbon footprints of all energy alternatives."

Last year, Purdue graduated nearly 10 percent of the all the nuclear engineering students earning bachelor's degrees in the country (39 out of 413) and a little more than 10 percent of all the graduate students earning doctorates (nine out of 89), according to Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

"This past year we have hired three new professors with outstanding credentials in the materials and fusion area," Bralts said. "Our research has doubled over the past couple of years. We are growing in strength and student numbers with an industry that is just beginning a renaissance."

Frehill and Bralts said the students graduating from schools with nuclear engineering degrees have jumped from the 130 graduating in 2000, but believed that increase may be due to the increase in the nuclear application in medicine than nuclear energy.

Purdue's nuclear engineering school has almost tripled over the past seven years, with 135 undergraduates in the program this past fall compared to 45 in 2000, said Erica Timmerman of the school's student services department. In the fall of 2007, the school had 46 sophomore students, its largest class of sophomores ever. The school is anticipating as many as 40 sophomores in the fall 

Bralts said graduating nuclear engineers are receiving offers of more than $60,000 per year because of the high employer demand. He said that demand is driven by Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements for plants and a commercial industry that is gearing up for an increase in power plant construction.

Writer: Clyde Hughes, (765) 494-2073,

Source: Vincent Bralts, (765) 494-5345,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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