Nuclear education and staffing: cause for concern?

29 November 2000

Staffing is likely to be a concern for nuclear operators very soon, and the industry must take steps to deal with the problem, says a new report from the OECD .

To bring attention to the problem of declining nuclear expertise and to quantify trends in nuclear education, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency submitted a questionnaire to almost 200 universities, research institutions, power companies, manufacturers, engineering offices, and regulatory bodies. Several concerns were reflected in the response.

•Trends in the quantitative data differ significantly from country to country, but sharply declining levels of expertise are observed in several countries that are dependent on large nuclear infrastructures.

•There is qualitative evidence of significant changes in student attitudes: a decline in spirit and enthusiasm and decreasing interest in science and technology in general.

•The average age of faculty members is increasing – a threat to sustaining expertise.

•Research facilities are ageing with almost no replacements planned.

•A significant fraction of nuclear graduates are not entering the nuclear industry.

•The current supply of entry-level workers in nuclear areas may not meet demand.

Another problem that the study identified was that although the overall number of graduates may seem reassuring, there are underlying causes for concern. Although it was difficult to quantify from the questionnaire, because there is no unique definition of what constitutes nuclear education, the nuclear content of many undergraduate courses has declined over time. The pool of knowledge at the undergraduate level is therefore decreasing.

Lead times in the nuclear industry can be a decade or more, and the tendency to decline should be considered now.

Government and industry is seldom involved in strategic planning which deals with nuclear technology as potentially important in helping to solve problems such as greenhouse gas emissions. In an era of deregulation and downsizing there is increasing pressure for decisions to be based on short-term considerations.

The report says that governments are the appropriate institutions for assuring long-term well-being when it appears that market forces alone will not be sufficient, and that they have an important role in dealing with nuclear issues.

It also seems to be the case that the nuclear content of courses at universities is diminishing. In addition, the fundamental science and advanced classes – necessary for in-depth critical thinking about this complex subject area – have fewer students, even though a broader fraction of students may receive overviews of science and nuclear subjects. Furthermore, research funding is now more difficult to obtain.

There are now fewer comprehensive, high-quality nuclear technology programmes at universities. The ability of universities to attract top-quality students, meet future staffing requirements of the nuclear industry, and conduct leading-edge research is becoming seriously compromised. Facilities and faculties for nuclear education are ageing, and the number of nuclear programmes is declining. The number of degrees with a nuclear content has generally decreased. Student perception is affected by educational circumstances, public perception, the industry’s activities, and reductions in government-funded nuclear programmes.

The report recommends urgent action to counteract the downward spiral of declining student interest and academic opportunities. The report says that governments have to manage the nuclear enterprise, sustaining international influence, pushing the frontiers in new technologies, and preserving medium- and long-term options.

While few new nuclear plants are currently on order, the report says governments must consider and protect their countries’ medium- and long-term energy options. Expertise must be retained so that future generations can consider the role of nuclear power as part of a balanced energy mix that will reduce CO2 levels, preserve fossil fuel resources, contribute to sustainable development, and respond to geopolitical and other surprises that are certain to occur.

The report recommends that universities should provide basic and attractive educational programmes; should interact early and often with potential students; should provide early research opportunities; and should offer adequate information.

As an introduction to undergraduate nuclear engineering, universities should provide broad courses including energy, environment and economic issues. Efforts should continue to adjust the curriculum, develop new disciplines, and implement measures to keep pace with the evolution of nuclear technologies to develop research areas that are attractive to students and meet the needs of industry.

Faculty members should visit schools and encourage students to be interested in nuclear technology.

Industry has to recognise its role in assuring an adequate supply of capable students and vigorous research, as well as maintaining the high quality training that is needed for staff in industry and research institutes.

There appear to be enough trainers and staff in industry and research institutes.

Finally the report concludes that sharing best practice would be greatly beneficial. Renewed investment in nuclear education by NEA member countries would help sustain their balance of energy usage, human resources, technology and economics.

Collaboration between industry and academia varies widely. “Where collaboration exists and runs effectively, it is highly valuable, particularly when a university is involved in nuclear professional activities with industry.” Collaboration keeps academic subjects relevant to the problems encountered in industry – a key element for attracting students to the field.

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