Nuclear Renaissance Having Impact on Higher Education


CORVALLIS, Ore. – In higher education, one of the side effects of the rebirth of the nuclear power industry is an exploding student interest in nuclear engineering and radiation health physics.

Following a sharp decline in nuclear engineering enrollment in the 1990s, students are now returning to the field. A Department of Energy survey last year determined that national enrollment of undergraduate students had doubled between 2000 and 2006.

Some projections have indicated that as many as 90,000 nuclear professionals may be needed in the next 10 years to meet the needs of all segments of the industry. And at Oregon State University, student enrollment in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics has almost tripled in the past decade.

Further expansion is anticipated, educators say. Companies are getting in line to recruit student interns, new fields are opening up in medical and health physics, and the future of both the nuclear energy and other related fields is higher than any time in recent history.

“Some disciplines that had been languishing for quite a while have really expanded rapidly in the past few years,” said Kathy Higley, professor and assistant department head at OSU.

“Even in the lean years most of our graduates found jobs, and now the opportunities are greater than ever,” she said. “We have several companies begging us for our students, both as interns and for permanent jobs, and that just wasn’t happening 10 years ago.”

After decades of stagnation, it appears that the nuclear power industry will be entering a period of rapid growth in the United States and around the world, many experts say. Several nations, including India and China, are making major new commitments to nuclear power and already have next-generation nuclear energy plants under construction. Many of the most experienced engineers and professionals are also nearing retirement, creating opportunities for students graduating with degrees in nuclear engineering and health physics.

Possible careers, Higley said, include not only industry, such as at nuclear power facilities, but in government, research laboratories, health care, and academia.

“Radiochemists are in particularly short supply, the national laboratories and major pharmacy companies are just screaming for more graduates,” Higley said.

This field, which requires an understanding of both chemistry and radioactive materials, provides the training for various work settings, such as use of radioactive tracers, fuel reprocessing, recycling of radioactive materials, or design of new radiopharmaceuticals for medical treatments.

Another growing discipline is medical physics – a field where radiation, physics, and medicine are combined.

"Medical physicists conduct research and develop protocols for diagnosis and treatment, often of cancer," Higley said. “In both these areas some salaries for graduates are going through the roof - medical physicists with an advanced degree now make salaries similar to that of a medical doctor.”

OSU educational programs have benefited from multi-million dollar research initiatives at the university on the newest types of “passive safety” systems that will form the backbone of the new generation of nuclear power reactors now being built around the world. The university’s graduate program in nuclear engineering has been ranked eighth nationally by U.S. News and World Report, and interest in radiation health physics graduate programs, now available through distance education, has also surged in recent years.

Madicken Munk, a sophomore in nuclear engineering from Coon Rapids, Minn., said she was attracted to the field, and to OSU, partly because of the opportunity to get involved in original research even as an undergraduate.

“When I was a freshman I was already helping analyze some soil samples with neutron radiography in a water transport study,” Munk said. “Now I’m working on a study of team interactions between engineers and other types of students. The opportunity to get involved in work like that has just been hugely interesting.”

Always good at math and science, Munk said, she first became interested in nuclear engineering during a high school project on the issues surrounding nuclear waste disposal. Her long term plans are still undecided, might include a doctoral program, and may range from work with particle accelerators to some of the applications NASA has under way with nuclear reactors.