The growth and future of nuclear technology depends on multiple factors. A major issue lies in convincing policy makers and the public to believe that these technologies are inherently safe sources of alternative energy. The fact that some agencies are trying to lower the amount of funding allotted to Nuclear Engineering education poses another threat to its future. There needs to be a stronger effort on our part as engineers and students to work with the government and public to help remedy this
The technology to build efficient reactors and plants already exists and it is the lack of education and irrational fear of the nuclear industry that is currently inhibiting its growth. In order to overcome this, it is necessary for the nuclear industry to be active and pursue dialogue with the government and public. There has been some success, in part to the Blue Ribbon Commission and the former Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu being an advocate of nuclear energy. However, it is imperative that the effort to strengthen this tie with the government continues. By fostering a stronger relationship with the public and the government through outreach programs and active collaborations, we can fulfill our duty as engineers to create a platform for non-engineers to voice their concerns and educate themselves about nuclear technologies.
There has been an ongoing push to cut the amount of fellowships given out to nuclear engineering students by combining them with other general science funding. However, this would severely inhibit the growth of the field since these fellowship programs act as the only source of targeted funding for students. As a nuclear engineering graduate student, I genuinely understand the importance of funding education. By increasing the amount of funding devoted to research, supporting students and faculty, and expanding nuclear engineering departments, we can finally get one step closer to achieving progress in the field. I have seen first-hand how fellowships like the Integrated University Program (IUP) have made a difference in encouraging students to pursue graduate studies in the field.
The nuclear industry is faced with a serious problem; the baby boomer generation that makes up a majority of the nuclear field will be ready to retire in the near future. This means we have nobody to take over after that generation leaves the industry. It is pertinent that we continue to fund education so that we have graduates to eventually fill the gap. If university and engineering education funding is cut, there is no transfer of knowledge and expertise. It is the government’s responsibility to support investment in nuclear science and engineering since they are the largest employer of graduating nuclear engineers. As a major stakeholder, it has a responsibility to provide the means to educate graduate students and fund research. This directly couples to ensuring that advanced reactor designs are being investigated by research groups, and nuclear energy acts as a viable option for the future.
Earlier this summer, I was selected to be a part of this year’s Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation (NESD) (www.nesd.org). The NESD consists of a group of self-elected students from various schools who are studying nuclear engineering or related fields to represent their universities, states, and hometowns on the Hill in DC for a week in July. The delegation meets in Washington DC for a week every year, and formulates a policy statement that conveys their views on nuclear energy, education, and research. They meet with policymakers on Capitol Hill to discuss and bring to light the issues they deem important to the student and research communities.
The 1995 federal budget supported the elimination of the nuclear research reactor program. As a result of that, the NESD was formed in 1994. Program funding was restored as a result of the students meeting with policymakers. I personally hadn’t really heard about NESD until last year, when one a friend sparked my curiosity by sharing their experience with the program. NESD is a great program for students who are looking to get more involved in nuclear policy and gain an understanding of how the nuclear industry is heavily influenced by lawmakers and government officials.
This year, we had the opportunity to meet with officials at Areva, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of State, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). We were very lucky to get the opportunity to have lunch with Peter B. Lyons (Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Energy), meet with the NRC chairwoman (Allison MacFarlane), and speak with a few of the NRC commissioners themselves. The final few days were spent meeting with Representatives, Senators and their staffers to discuss our policy statement.
By fostering a stronger relationship with the public and the government through advocacy programs such as NESD, and active collaborations, we can fulfill our duty as engineers to create a platform for non-engineers to voice their concerns and educate them regarding nuclear technologies. During my visit in DC and my meetings on the Hill, I noticed that the policymakers rarely have people with technical backgrounds or degrees working with them to formulate laws about the nuclear field. It is imperative for people with a strong technical basis to actively seek to engage in dialogue with the government to help bridge this gap. If the relationship between policy makers and the nuclear industry is strengthened in the future, I see a world where nuclear technology is welcomed with abundant financial support for research and development.
Visiting DC was a very enriching experience for me and I will be returning next year to the delegation. It is my hope that NESD gets more visibility in the years to come, and more students apply to be a part of it. The week I spent in DC helped me understand the importance of having people with a strong technical background in the subject to get more involved in DC. When I asked the NRC Commissioners William Magwood and William Ostendorff about the lack of people with a technical background working on policy that directly influences the industry, they responded by saying they weren’t sure why this was the case but agreed that this needs to change immediately. More scientists and engineers should make an effort to influence policy by communicating with their local, state and federal government agencies, and NESD is a great way to do so. By participating in this program, students can get their voices heard by industry CEO’s and government officials. This is a great opportunity to understand how important it is to bring the engineering and the policy world together.