Young people entering the nuclear energy field retain their idealism about it

haphazardLet’s say that here in June 2011 you are 22 years old and have just graduated from a four-year nuclear engineering program with your B.S. in hand and are looking at the future of the industry. What you want is a job and respect for the work you do.

What you see is a workforce top heavy with people your parents’ age who are about to retire. That’s actually good news because every one of those retirements is a job opening in an otherwise dismal economy.

On the other hand, what you also see is the rickety shape of the industry with aging plants, early closures, and the governors of several states determined to shut down major sources of their electricity supply because it comes from nuclear plants.

The other thing you see is the growing legacy of now three major nuclear accidents affecting public opinion. Finally, what you also get as a 20 something are date nights where your companion for the evening rolls their eyes when you tell them what you plan to do with your life. Hey, whatever happened to plans for a career in something with less excess baggage?

Nukes never walk alone

Does anyone out there care about this? The answer turns out to be yes. An organization called North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NAYGN) has 90 local chapters in North America with 7,000 members. Recently, several people who work with the organization spoke with nuclear bloggers during the monthly conference call with Areva.


First, according to these NAYGN members, young people entering the nuclear energy field remain committed to educating the public about the industry. According to NAYGN, which keeps track of such things, the organization rolled up 84,000 hours of volunteer time of which 36,000 hours were related to communication and outreach about Fukushima.

The group is also running training programs for its members in the soft skills of public speaking, media communication, and dealing with widespread public misperceptions about radiation.

Here we go again

On the other hand, it is completely understandable that young people are frustrated with what the current global leadership of the industry has done to it. The public now looks at nuclear energy and ticks off the three major nuclear accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima like they were three manifestations of the devil incarnate. Anti-nuclear groups produce an outpouring of online content saying that another “Fukushima” is inevitable and that all nuclear reactors should be closed permanently and right now.

second thoughtsAfter watching what’s happening in Germany and Switzerland, where nukes are being closed despite engineering practices that are among the best in the world, is it any wonder that NAYGN members might be having second thoughts about they chosen field?

So their legitimate question as more news comes out of Fukushima on lessons learned is “how many times does the industry have to make the same mistakes?” By this they are referring to a lack of independence for the nuclear regulatory function and taking probabilistic risk seriously among other things.

The accident that launched 1,000 reports

It may not be immediately reassuring to NAYGN members, but the nuclear industry is pedal to the metal to get on top of what happened at Fukushima and figure out what went wrong, why, and how to prevent another accident like it.

For instance, a report by the government of Japan to the IAEA on lessons learned so far about the Fukushima accident indicates the need for more independence for the nuclear regulatory agency and better emergency preparedness for reactors in earthquake zones.

And that’s not the only effort taking place to figure out what went wrong and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The OECD hosted a meeting June 8 of nuclear regulatory agencies among G8 nations. Not surprisingly, the meeting concluded that while technical cooperation was useful, responsibility and accountability for nuclear safety rests with plant operators.

NEI’s Way Forward

In the U.S. the Nuclear Energy Institute and several industry organizations are coordinating their efforts to respond to the Fukushima crisis. What’s driving the effort is a realization that the response of the U.S. industry to the crisis in Fukushima was haphazard and lacked coordination among responding organizations. (NY Times 6/10/11)

A white paper posted on the NEI web site lays out an ambitious agenda for the project. It includes seven “building blocks.”

  1. Maintain focus on excellence in existing plant performance.
  2. Develop and issue lessons learned from Fukushima events.
  3. Improve the effectiveness of U.S. industry response capability to global nuclear events
  4. Develop and implement a strategic communications plan.
  5. Develop and implement the industry’s regulatory response.
  6. Participate and coordinate with international organizations.
  7. Provide technical support and R&D coordination.

Two key goals that drove the design of this “joint leadership model” are to ensure that no gaps exist in response activities and that there is not a duplication of effort among the organizations and companies that comprise the industry, said Tony Pietrangelo, NEI’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer.

Pietrangelo unveiled the structure at a news conference with Charles Pardee, who chairs the Fukushima Response Steering Committee. Pardee is the chief operating officer for Exelon Generation Co. Other organizations involved in the effort include the Electric Power Research Institute and the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations.

ANS conference sessions on Fukushima

At the American Nuclear Society National Meeting, to be held in Hollywood, FL, June 26-30, there will be two special sessions on Fukushima. The first to be held Monday June 27, which will focus on the latest update and lessons learned in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Speakers from industry, government, and Japan will focus on the events sequence, major issues, challenges, media interactions, and lessons learned to date.

The panel moderator will be Joe Colvin (President, American Nuclear Society), and panelists will include:

  • Akira Omoto (Commissioner, Japan Atomic Energy Commission–Japan)
  • Dale Klein (University of Texas, Austin)
  • Michael Weber (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

A second session Tuesday June 28 will be chaired by former ANS President Andrew Kadak and include a similar list of expert panelists. Topics expected to be addressed include the accident sequence, challenges faced by the operating staff, reactor and fuel damage mechanisms, environmental impacts, and emergency response.

Topics that are likely to be discussed at both sessions include;

  • Boiling water reactor technologies
  • Analyses of how nuclear accidents occur
  • Health effects of radiation exposure
  • Nuclear regulatory issues
  • Risk Communication

Can we talk?

There’s no word yet whether all these studies, panels, and industry teams are going to work together. Tony Kauffman, a media relations specialist at the Nuclear Energy Institute, told this blog he’s not aware of any engagement so far among the different projects. There should be. Otherwise, things will likely continue to be “haphazard.” That’s not going to encourage young people to enter the nuclear energy field nor stay in it.

Photo by zirconicusso.


Editor's note:

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