Past, present and future30 March 2001
Following on from last month’s article in this series, another young engineer describes the outlook for the industry. Mark E Hardwidge, on the verge of completing a Masters degree at the University of Illinois, says that the start of his career will coincide with a nuclear power renaissance.
I admit that I’m being optimistic, but I think that the industry will be starting a resurgence by the end of the decade. It’s hard enough to predict what will happen and, being at the beginning of my career, my lack of experience makes it all the more difficult to do so. However, I can present a viewpoint on how the field appears to someone entering it.
The recent energy crises have brought power generation issues to the forefront. In some areas, at least in the American midwest, fuel costs for gas heating greatly increased several months ago. That, combined with an unusually cold winter, resulted in many people finding their residential power bills substantially higher than expected, sometimes as great as a factor of two or more. We still do not have a viable alternative, and we’ll be out of cheap fossil fuels in a few decades’ time. I think virtually all the people I work with consider it inevitable that nuclear energy will make a comeback. What seems to be debatable is whether that would be within the next decade, or the next 20 or even 30 years.
I think it will be sooner, given the recent change of government. It is true that President Bush is an “oil man”, but I see this as better than a “no alternative man”. I have never heard anything about him being anti-nuclear, and I expect that he will recognise nuclear as our best option.
The next generation
The other major changes are the improved designs that have been put on paper but are yet to see widespread use. For example, Exelon recently gave our department a very convincing seminar on the bright future of Eskom’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). Low power density in the reactor contributes to inherent safety, to the point that even natural convection can practically ensure there are no catastrophes, even from a complete loss of coolant. This works strongly towards improving safety and, perhaps more importantly from a practical standpoint, towards improving the public’s opinion of safety. In addition, higher temperatures of operation, or better choices of coolants, can yield higher efficiencies. This will work strongly towards closing the gap in costs between nuclear and fossil plants.
Even if this particular venture does not turn out as well as we would hope, one need only look at some overall design ideas for new plants to see that they could be
substantially superior to older designs. I have seen other modular designs from several sources. There are advantages of being able to mass-produce dozens and eventually hundreds of identical modules, and then ship them to their site of operation. It is not unreasonable to say that these construction costs will almost certainly be cheaper than the costs of constructing largely unique facilities on-site.
However, nuclear power is in an unusual situation. Had plant construction been continuing at a constant rate, we would now be in the middle of an evolutionary period. Instead, we have had work continually being carried out on new ideas and designs, but no large-scale implementation of them for rather a long time (at least from the perspective of someone my age). Thus, once nuclear power makes its resurgence, we will have a small revolutionary period, as we have years of accumulated research. This is an appealing opportunity for those of us coming into the field, as we will get to experience both the excitement of a new field, and the stability and benefits of an old field.
Mastering the art
In May I will hopefully complete my Masters in the nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering (NPRE) department in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Although my Bachelors was in mechanical engineering, I spent the last two years of the degree studying in the nuclear engineering department. My focus has been mainly on radiological and safety topics, although my thesis deals with dissociating gasses as working fluids. After my degree is completed, I will be working as a US naval officer for five or more years. I don’t yet know if I will be working in nuclear power or some other nuclear field after that.
UIUC’s NPRE department is typically ranked in the top three in the country. We have about 55 undergraduate students and 50 graduate students, which is quite small on our campus of 36,000 students. About a dozen nuclear engineering degrees are awarded each year.
Degrees specifically in nuclear engineering are, it would seem, still a fairly new thing, and have still not been strongly established. In fact our department is often worried that mechanical engineering will swallow it up, even though the yearly demand of nuclear engineers is several times larger than the approximately one hundred nuclear engineering degrees granted in America.
Nuclear engineering is changing and, as the name implies, has already changed from a topic dealing with science to one dealing with technology. Those my age are coming into a mature field and are no longer entering an industry that deals with questions such as: “Can we make a power plant run on nuclear power?”; or even, more recently: “How do we figure out how to build a good reactor and run it cost effectively?” We already know how to build a reactor, and we know how to make a good reactor. Not that new science is not carried out any more, but the bulk of research no longer involves determining such things as cross-sections of elements, but rather it involves answering questions like: “How can we increase the fault tolerance of this design?” Or: “What new working fluids should we consider for coolants?” Or: “How can I improve this finite element code to give better and faster results?”
I think this trend towards more specialised courses in nuclear engineering can only help the industry. I expect that most nuclear engineers have an education in mechanical engineering, electrical education, or physics. This is the case even for our department faculty, with only a minority holding degrees specifically in nuclear engineering. Certainly good engineering can be done by those crossing fields, but it seems to me that if you plan to work in the nuclear field, a degree in mechanical, electrical, or civil engineering would be very unlikely to have offered you a solid background in all aspects of the industry – from reactor physics, to fluid dynamics and heat transfer, to computer modeling, to economics, to quantum physics, to shielding and radiological aspects. The basics of all of those are specifically required parts of our undergraduate degree and should give both employees and employers a valuable head start.
Specialised education is both a result and a cause of the development and maturation of the field. Just three or four generations back, there was only nuclear science. Two generations back was the first use of nuclear technology, with the creation of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The last generation really saw the first large growth in technology, moving from science to engineering. Nowadays there is the opportunity to learn about nuclear engineering in university. However, we have not yet progressed to having much integration with industry. The idea that universities should base what they teach primarily on what the industry needs people to know still seems to be a fairly innovative idea, one which many universities still have not really adopted to a large enough extent.
There are many good university departments that have begun to offer more project courses. For example, as part of my Bachelors degree in mechanical engineering at UIUC we had several “design courses” lasting many weeks, and our final course consisted of a semester-long project. For this, various companies submit projects that they would otherwise have their own engineers solve. These projects are then given to groups of students, and a good design that solves the problem is expected by the end of the semester. Giving students an actual task that they might have encountered in a career is obviously one of the few things that prepares students for a real job.
On the other hand, I have yet to see this done nearly as well in the nuclear engineering department. As it is a smaller industry, in terms of number of students as well as number of companies, this limits how much interconnectivity there can be and the speed at which it can progress. Developing this sort of thing would be much more difficult in our field, but I believe that pursuing it would be a logical way to help move from a new field to a developed field. There are already some steps being made in the right direction but there is still much to do.
For someone living and studying in the USA, there are a number of choices available. For me there were four options that I thought were open to me:
I would estimate that about one-third to one-half of my colleages are likely to stay on as long-term graduate students, post-docs, and eventually professors. This may seem like a lot of people and it surprises me too, given that there is such a big demand in industry. Nevertheless that is about the proportion of people who stay on at UIUC, and I believe this to be typical of the dozen or so other universities offering similar courses.
This probably is a reflection on the fact that there is still a lot of material covered that is not related to industry. In a more industrial-oriented degree such as mechanical engineering, there is a lot of time spent working with industry and figuring out what industry want – and a higher proportion of students moving into industry on completion of their Bachelors degree.
With a lack of new construction in America at the moment, most of the new jobs, I understand, involve replacing those who are retiring. With many of those in the industry having come into it near the beginning, however, there is plenty of demand for the 100 or so students granted degrees in the field each year. I am confident that the demand will increase very soon, once new power plants are planned. It is also almost certain that there will be a lot of interesting plant life extension work to be carried out on our existing plants in the near future.
– such as medical, general power, or manufacturing.
Certainly a solid education in nuclear engineering gives a great many tools that are of use in a number of fields that involve related engineering skills, and not just in nuclear technology. So long as nuclear power plants exist this is actually not an option for me personally. In fact, should it happen that there are no nuclear engineering jobs in the US in future, then I can see myself going abroad in order to work in the industry.
The US Navy
The navy has a huge demand for nuclear-trained officers and similar roles. Previous education in the field is by no means required, and is actually pretty rare due to the already great demand, but is definitely a bonus.
For me this is the most attractive option and I will be serving five years as a US naval officer after I finish my Masters degree. Naval experience is considered, at least in America, very valuable and is not an unusual route to take. I will not be working on a ship but in an office carrying out design and inspection projects for the US Nuclear Navy.
Should I decide to leave the Navy after my contract finishes then I believe I will be entering the industry right at the beginning of a large period of growth. It seems extremely likely to me that we will start to see some major improvements before 2020, if not sooner. Simple supply and demand means that, if we don’t have enough nuclear engineers to meet the demand right now, once it increases greatly we will be well sought after. Joining the nuclear power job market in 2006 with five years of naval managerial training seems like such a bright future, that I am surprised there aren’t thousands of engineers planning to start their careers that way.