Readiness of the U.S. Nuclear Workforce for 21st Century Challenges

From a Report of the APS Panel on Public Affairs

The 21st century has brought a growing realization that it is time to reexamine the adequacy of the U.S. nuclear workforce and its ability to deal with many old and new challenges. This workforce comprises nuclear engineers, nuclear chemists, radiochemists, health physicists, nuclear physicists, nuclear technicians, and certain related disciplines. As a group they play critical roles in the nation’s nuclear power industry, nuclear weapons complex, defense against nuclear and other forms of terrorism, industrial processing, healthcare, and occupational health and safety. Each of these areas presents dramatically more challenges than in previous years.

Workforce shortages in the arena of commercial nuclear power mainly stem from the 30-year stasis in U.S. demand for new civilian nuclear power plants . The number of operating civilian nuclear reactors in the U.S. has remained at about 100 during this time. Their continuing, largely static nuclear engineering workforce needs have been met through a combination of hiring those trained in university nuclear engineering programs and retraining others whose original expertise was in some other field, usually mechanical engineering. Retirees from the nuclear Navy also have played an important role.

Today there is increasing public concern about anthropogenic global warming. A 2003 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report noted that there are few options in the near future to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production of energy: increased efficiency, increased reliance on renewable sources such as wind and solar power, capture and sequestering of carbon dioxide emissions, and increasing the contribution from nuclear reactors. About 20% of the electricity in the U.S. comes from its fleet of 104 commercial nuclear reactors, which annually displace hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon emissions. These reactors currently account for approximately 70% of the non-carbon emitting electricity production in the U.S.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was the first comprehensive energy legislation in the U.S. in over a decade. Among its many provisions was the authorization of Nuclear Power 2010 , a joint government/industry program to accomplish the following: (1) identify new nuclear reactor sites, (2) bring to market advanced standardized nuclear reactor designs; and (3) demonstrate improved regulatory licensing. It also authorized Federal loan guarantees and other financial incentives. Spurred by this program, private industry currently is submitting combined construction and operating license applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

On another front, the tragedy of September 11, 2001, has brought an intense focus on the issue of national preparedness against terrorism. For emergencies involving a terrorist action or an accident at a nuclear reactor, experts must be ready to respond. Thus it is important to attend to the nuclear workforce needs of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the NRC, and specialized areas of the Department of Energy. An important example of the latter is the Nuclear Emergency Support Team from DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration that travels to the site of a suspected nuclear or radiological weapon to mitigate the situation. Thus, the nation will need to expand its nuclear workforce to initiate new efforts in nuclear forensics and other parts of the Homeland Security portfolio, and to replace many retiring members of the weapons workforce.

For many years, funding for U.S. university nuclear science and engineering research and education has been heavily dependent upon a single source: previously DOE and now the NRC. Therefore, it is no accident that the vitality of the nation’s university nuclear science and engineering education and infrastructure program closely tracked funding support provided by DOE over the last 15 years. As shown in Fig. 1, as DOE’s funding increased in the decade 1997 through 2007, undergraduate student enrollment in nuclear engineering increased – from a low of 480 students in 1999 to a high of 1,933 in 2007. For nuclear engineering students at minority-serving institutions, DOE support created new opportunities. While other factors also contributed to the dramatic increase in undergraduate enrollments, university administrators indicate that increases in Federal funding were indeed an important factor.

figure 1

Fig. 1. Past DOE investments in university programs and undergraduate enrollments in nuclear engineering . In FY 2007 the DOE university budget was $16.5 million. For FY 2008, aside from $ 2.9 million remaining at DOE for university reactor fuel services, Congress transferred $15 million for the remaining university programs to the NRC.

In the aftermath of the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, DOE support for nuclear science and engineering education declined precipitously as industry construction of new plants ceased and student interest and career opportunities declined. In 1997, the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report that urged President Clinton to reinvest in university nuclear science and engineering research and education . PCAST also urged him to establish the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee to provide advice to DOE on this reinvestment. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton Administration recognized the potential for a resurgence in nuclear technology, and constituted NERAC in 1998 to advise DOE as it began reinvesting both funds and management attention to rebuilding the educational infrastructure for nuclear science and engineering. This support was implemented by creating a suite of eleven targeted programs, among which perhaps the most influential was the Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education (INIE) program, which encouraged the development of strategic consortia among universities, DOE national laboratories, and industry.

When DOE released its FY2007 budget request, it announced that it had completed its mission in the area of nuclear science and engineering education and made plans to terminate the program. DOE proposed essentially zero funding for nuclear science and engineering education for both FY2007 and FY2008. This signaled a significant reversal of fortune not seen since the early 1990s. DOE proposed to return to the practice of those years by providing only basic fuel services for university research reactors under a new infrastructure program. In FY2007, Congress rejected DOE’s proposal to terminate the program and instead provided $16.5 million – far less than the $27 million the program received in FY2006. In FY2008, Congress again rejected ending the program and allocated $17.9 million in the FY2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act. Of this amount, $2.9 million remained at DOE for university reactor fuel services, and Congress transferred to the NRC $15 million for the rest of the programs. While these funds would defer to some extent the erosion of nuclear science and engineering education in the U.S., they are not sufficient to maintain vital elements of the nation’s programs, particularly the highly successful INIE program. It was last funded in FY2006.

As for nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry, these are two fields that overlap in many ways. Simply put, radiochemistry is the study of radioactive elements using chemical techniques, focusing on their radioactive characteristics. Nuclear chemistry is the study of the fundamental properties of nuclei, both radioactive and non-radioactive, using chemical techniques. It is quite close to the field of nuclear physics.

There has been a continuing dramatic decrease in the number of Ph.D.s earned annually in nuclear chemistry, as shown in Fig. 2. It reflects the fact that only a handful of U.S. university chemistry departments currently have professors with active research programs in nuclear chemistry. Thus, advanced education in nuclear chemistry education is all but extinct in the United States.

figure 2

Fig. 2. Numbers of nuclear chemistry Ph.D.s earned at U.S. universtities: 1961-2003.

If nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry education programs are not reinvigorated, the U.S. will lack the expertise required to pursue promising advanced R&D in a myriad of disciplines. In addition to processing both fresh and spent fuel for nuclear reactors, including basic research on spent fuel separations and transmutation technologies, nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry are also extremely important to the nation’s security and health in the following cross-cutting roles: (1) nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship, (2) nuclear forensics and surveillance of clandestine nuclear activities, (3) monitoring of radioactive elements in the environment, (4) production of radioisotopes, and (5) preparation of radiopharmaceuticals for therapeutic and diagnostic medical applications.

When considering the nuclear enterprise, the status of the health physics workforce and its training facilities must be considered. For occupational safety and the protection of the public, health physics professionals are employed in many sectors, including the commercial nuclear power industry, DOE’s national laboratories, homeland security, the NRC, the military and medical facilities.

The nation’s health physics capabilities will be impacted negatively over the next decade due to the number of expected retirements, coupled with inadequate numbers of graduates entering the field. Fig. 3 provides data on health physics graduates. Considering that the retirement rate of health physicists in the U.S. is roughly 200 per year , the number of health physics graduates does not allow for much increase in the demand for their services.

figure 3

Fig. 3. Number of students graduating from health physics programs, including Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees , 1980-2007.

Turning to university research and training reactors, their number has decreased from 63 in the late 1970’s to 25 today. Recently a number of them have been decommissioned, including those at Cornell University and the University of Michigan. During FY2006, DOE’s INIE Program provided $9.41 million to six consortia consisting of both the higher power (usually 1 MW and above) research reactors as well as the lower power (usually less than 1 MW) training reactors. Research reactors mainly perform state-of-the-art experiments and provide irradiation services for private industry and other researchers. Training reactors mainly provide hands-on experiences for students.

The INIE program had numerous significant successes, including helping to increase the number of students studying nuclear science and engineering, stimulating the hiring of new tenure-track faculty, providing seed money for a number of major infrastructure and instrumentation purchases and upgrades, fostering collaborations among members of each consortium and with national laboratories, freeing a number of university reactors from threats of decommissioning, assisting with the establishment of a nuclear technology Associate’s degree program at Linn State Technical College in Missouri, and helping to establish a new undergraduate nuclear engineering program at South Carolina State University, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities . That program is the first to be created in over a quarter-century at any U.S. university and is the only undergraduate nuclear engineering program located at an HBCU .

Nuclear physicists are an indispensable part of the workforce, since a wealth of high precision actinide fission and neutron capture cross section data is needed to support the design of future nuclear reactors, including advanced light water reactors and Generation IV systems . Without such data, simulation studies would not be accurate enough to lead to reliable designs and conclusions . From their systems analyses, DOE researchers have identified the cross sections of particular importance. The U.S. has neutron source facilities, such as the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, that can be used for many of the cross section measurements, and capabilities not present in the U.S. usually can be found elsewhere . Many of the cross section measurements are extremely challenging and entirely new techniques need to be developed. Moreover, much more fundamental work is needed to understand the basic physics of nuclear isotopes and their various cross sections. A better theoretical understanding would reduce the uncertainties in many applications. All of these issues are fertile ground for Ph.D. research.

Next, to evaluate the supply of nuclear engineers with at least a Bachelor’s degree that is needed for nuclear power generation between now and 2050, it is useful to consider three scenarios: (1) maintaining the current number of nuclear reactors (about 100) without reprocessing, (2) doubling the number of reactors without reprocessing fuel, and (3) doubling the number of reactors while closing the fuel cycle by reprocessing and recycling spent fuel.

Due to the shortage of nuclear engineers over recent decades, reactor vendors have resorted to hiring far more mechanical engineers than nuclear engineers and providing them with nuclear-related training. With approximately 35% of nuclear workers reaching retirement age in the next five years , industry will likely see some increase in engineering hiring across the board. This will heighten demands for nuclear engineering education, whether supplied by university programs or by the employers themselves. Scenario 1 has a chance of being sustainable. On the other hand, doubling the number of nuclear reactors to about 200 by 2050 will require a significant augmentation of the nuclear workforce. Vendors, utilities, and the NRC will need to increase their ranks by about 300 engineers with some nuclear training per year, plus replace retirees. This growth in manpower is a direct result of what would be an increasing demand for significantly improved reactor designs, increased reactor operations at the utilities, and a much greater oversight burden at the NRC. On the other hand, the number of new nuclear engineering graduates at all degree levels entering nuclear employment is about 160. Hence, assuming that the supply of nuclear engineers coming from university training programs follows recent trends, employers will need to train significantly more non-nuclear engineers to do nuclear engineering tasks than they do now. It is doubtful that the massive reactor building campaigns necessary to double the number of reactors by 2050 could thrive under such a burden. The clear message is that our capability for university-based training of nuclear scientists and engineers cannot be allowed to diminish further.

Scenario 3 is the most problematic. This scenario has all the workforce challenges of Scenario 2, plus the need for highly trained nuclear chemists and radiochemists who are indispensable for reprocessing. Unlike France, the U.S. has no governmental agency charged with educating nuclear chemists and radiochemists. Those wanting to pursue these fields are educated under faculty mentors at universities. The growing scarcity of such mentors has thus led to a crisis in the U.S. In the long haul, the U.S. will lose ground in its R&D on many fronts, including devising more efficient and safer methods of processing both fresh and spent fuels for all future nuclear energy scenarios. Nuclear chemists and radiochemists with Ph.D.s would be needed to train the large cadre of radiochemical technicians who would carry out most of this work, and they would be needed at universities and national laboratories to spearhead the research that leads to breakthrough radiochemical technologies. Thus, any venture into spent fuel reprocessing, and fulfilling nuclear chemists’ and radiochemists’ many other cross-cutting roles in such areas as homeland security and public health, will not be possible unless expertise is imported from abroad. This modality is made much more difficult by the requirement that many of these workers must be U.S. citizens. In the U.S., market-driven forces will not be able to produce additional domestically trained nuclear chemists and radiochemists if the educational infrastructure continues to disappear.

Aside from nuclear power, the nation will continue to need a significant number of talented, well-trained nuclear scientists and engineers to maintain the strength of its homeland security and nuclear weapons programs. These complexes must be safeguarded, and this is a clear responsibility of the Federal government. To satisfy these and nuclear power’s demands on the nuclear workforce, the Federal government should stabilize the long-term funding and management of nuclear science and engineering education programs, in particular for the university research and training reactor facilities. The number of nuclear engineering departments and university reactors should not be allowed to diminish further. Also, existing reactors could be utilized more optimally by expanding distance-learning opportunities. As for nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry, there is a huge need for the Federal government to establish a cross-cutting workforce initiative that includes fellowships and scholarships for students, support for postdoctoral researchers, incentives that stimulate industrial support of faculty positions, effective means of outreach to the general public, and increased support for summer schools in these disciplines. For health physics, the Federal government should ensure that there is a sufficient number of faculty with nuclear reactor-related experience to train the necessary numbers of health physicists for the nuclear power and other industries. Finally, the Federal government should increase support for research on the fundamental physics and chemistry of actinide fission and neutron capture.

There is also an educational role for private industry. Nuclear vendors and utilities should expand undergraduate student internships, graduate student traineeships, cooperative education opportunities, and training on reactor simulators at their facilities.

To conclude, creating new reactor designs, revolutionary medical applications of radiation, and many other nuclear endeavors present exciting challenges. As such, the nuclear science and engineering community should develop programs to encourage the general public to view these fields as exciting areas of research that present intellectually and financially rewarding career paths.

Sekazi Mtingwa served as chair of the POPA study on the Readiness of the U.S. Nuclear Workforce for 21st Century Challenges. He is an accelerator physicist and Senior Lecturer at MIT. During 1998-2008, he served on DOE’s Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee, and he continues to serve on its Advanced Nuclear Transformation Technologies Subcommittee, which advises DOE on its reactor spent fuel R&D Program.


The full report can be found at

Having begun construction in 1973 and commercial operation in 1996, the Watts Bar Unit 1 nuclear reactor of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is the nation’s last civilian nuclear power plant to be commissioned into service.

The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, ISBN 0-615-12420-8, 2003, .

e.g. growing public concern about global warming, positive Presidential and Congressional statements in support of nuclear energy, more aggressive recruiting, broadening the names and academic emphases of many departments, and recently increased salaries and job opportunities for nuclear engineers.

Data source: DOE.

Source: NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates. Nuclear chemistry was dropped from the NSF database in 2004 when fewer than 2 Ph.D.s were earned. These data are consistent with those compiled by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Data do not include radiochemistry Ph.D.s.

Human Capital Crisis Task Force Report, Health Physics Society, July 2004,

Source: Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, under contract with DOE, annual surveys of enrollments and degrees in academic programs with majors or programs equivalent to a major in health physics. Other ORISE data indicate that the number of institutions with health physics programs decreased from 60 to 29 between 1991 and 2007.

This collaboration is the result of the DOE-NE Program in Nuclear Engineering and Health Physics, which pairs minority institutions with institutions offering a nuclear engineering degree to increase the number of minorities entering the field.

It has been operational since 2000, beginning with 5 students, and recently produced its first two graduates. It is in partnership with the University of Wisconsin, and the students also participate in distance-training with the reactor at North Carolina State University.

Advanced Light Water Reactors are the greatly improved reactors to be deployed over the next ten years. After that, the next generation to be brought online around 2020 and beyond is called Generation IV. Examples are the Very High Temperature Reactor that could produce hydrogen for the transportation industry and the sodium-cooled fast neutron spectrum reactor that could be used to recycle spent fuels containing the actinides.

Nuclear data sensitivity, uncertainty and target accuracy assessment for future nuclear systems, G. Aliberti et al., Ann. Nuc. Energy, 33 (2006) 700, online at

Important international laboratories are those at the Neutron Time of Flight facility at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland; the Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements in Geel, Belgium; and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia.

Nuclear Renaissance Presents Significant Employment Opportunities, NEI Tells Senate Panel, Testimony at U.S. Senate Hearing by Carol Berrigan, Director of Industry Infrastructure, Nuclear Energy Institute, November 6, 2007; NEI 2007 Workforce Survey.

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.