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The Best and Brightest Education and Training in Nuclear Fields

Concerns about tomorrow's nuclear workforce are focusing attention on nuclear education, research, and training -- and on ways to attract top prospects to nuclear-related careers. The IAEA Bulletin looks at the unfolding picture. Excerpts from the lead article highlight the trends.

No "quick fix" is foreseen to troubling trends, as governments step up efforts to attract -- and retain -- the next generation of scientists, engineers, and specialists in fields of nuclear science and technology. The reasons for action? High among them are an emerging shortfall of specialized expertise, worrying trends in nuclear education at universities and institutes, and public perceptions of a "stagnant" industry with poor career prospects.

Several studies in recent years, and results of international conferences, have served to focus greater attention on the "people" side of nuclear's future.

  • In 1999, a study by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development surveyed 16 of its member countries. The study was done to address concerns about downward trends in nuclear education and training at universities. "In most countries, there are now fewer comprehensive, high-quality nuclear technology programmes at universities than before," the study found. "Failure to take appropriate steps now will seriously jeopardize the provision of adequate expertise tomorrow."
  • In the United States, which has the world's largest nuclear programme, a "Blue Ribbon" governmental panel examining nuclear education and research trends issued its report in May 2000, sounding an urgent call for action. The panel urged greater funding, and targeted outreach programmes, to support nuclear engineering and science education, to upgrade training and research reactors at universities, and to refresh an ageing faculty and workforce.
  • Trends in other regions -- notably Asia and the Pacific where nuclear technologies have firm footing for electricity generation and other applications -- are more difficult to discern. Some insights are gained from reports at international symposia on research and education for nuclear energy. One series has been co-sponsored by Japan's Tokai University Education System and the University of California-Berkeley's Department of Nuclear Engineering. Reports from China, Japan, Thailand and other countries in 1999 and 2000 have focused attention on problems to attract and retain students in nuclear engineering and related specialized fields.
  • At their recent General Conferences, IAEA Member States have adopted resolutions calling for measures to strengthen global cooperation in areas of nuclear education and training, ranging from nuclear safety, radiation protection, and waste management to nuclear applications in hydrology and other fields. The General Conference further has requested the Agency to place special emphasis on supporting the development of nuclear applications in Member States "with a view to preserving nuclear knowledge, sustaining nuclear infrastructures, and fostering science, technology and engineering for enhancing nuclear safety."
  • Common Ground

A number of common threads bind the studies and symposia reviews. In the forefront for most countries surveyed is the need to recruit, attract, and retain the young generation, namely students, junior professionals, and teachers. Key objectives include revitalizing nuclear science and engineering education programmes, and renewing proactive industry outreach and recruitment campaigns.

The outlook is brighter in France, which relies upon nuclear power for over 75% of its electricity and sees no immediate concern over a shortage of young nuclear graduates. As reported by the NEA, the age breakdown of atomic engineering graduates recruited by the French atomic energy commission shows a relatively young population "capable of keeping its expertise alive for years to come".

Another common thread is the need to address public perceptions that tend to cast nuclear fields in poor light, and influence academic and career choices. In Belgium, among other countries, the NEA study reported that the number of students in nuclear engineering progressively decreased as nuclear power expansion slowed and nuclear's public image fell.

In the USA, a prime objective of education strategies is to restore public confidence and nuclear's image: "The redevelopment of a positive outlook for nuclear energy in the United States will encourage the recruitment and education of a new generation of students to meet the (human resource) needs of the next several decades," the NEA study reported.

To a large extent, perceptions may be tied to wrong impressions, signalling the need for greater investment in public communications programmes. The image of a "stagnant" technology, for example, often goes against the grain.

"Nuclear technology has been applied and is still progressing in a wide area: generation of electric and thermal power, medical diagnosis and therapy, agriculture, non-destructive testing, among other things," the NEA study states. "Nuclear education competence is important...for sensitizing a wider audience to nuclear-energy related issues." The issue crosses pro- and anti-nuclear lines.

"Whether one supports, opposes, or is neutral about nuclear energy, it is evident that there are important current and long-term future nuclear issues that require significant expertise," the NEA study noted. The issues include safe and economic operation of nuclear power and research facilities, some of which will significantly extend their planned lifetimes; decommissioning plants; environmental protection; waste management; and radiation protection. These needs call for a steady supply of high-quality students and vigorous research.

A third common element is the need for greater collaboration between government, industry, and academic communities at national levels, between developing and industrialized countries, and between international, regional, and non-governmental bodies globally. Through such channels, good national practices, promising initiatives, and "hands-on" internship and fellowship opportunities can be shared and more widely put into practice.

Global Initiatives

When its study was done, the NEA set up an international task force on nuclear education and training. The IAEA has participated in this forum as part of its work to review and improve its educational and training programmes. Other Agency activities include projects directed at the "preservation of nuclear knowledge".

The range of IAEA-supported education and training opportunities is diverse and closely linked with technical and research programmes serving specific national development goals of the Agency's Member States. Not all areas of the IAEA's work are covered in this edition of the IAEA Bulletin, and more information is available in the Agency's Annual Report, scientific and technical publications, and the WorldAtom pages on the Internet.

No one yet sees a "crisis point" in nuclear education, and countries are targeting actions on the most pressing concerns. But lead times are long for specialized training and undergraduate and advanced studies, and the goal is to prevent potential repercussions down the line. In the USA, for example, legislation was introduced this year to bolster government funding for nuclear education and research through 2006, and industries are recruiting more actively.

Educational doors and incentives may be opening at the right time. US analysts say that demand exceeds supply in the nuclear job market for the best and brightest minds.--Lothar Wedekind, IAEA Division of Public Information.