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The Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power plant

Just over ten years ago, James Duderstadt, President Emeritus of the University of Michigan warned that if the US did not renew its commitment to research in nuclear engineering and science, the country would face a crisis in a decade’s time. Congress listened.

The crisis that Duderstadt and his colleagues anticipated was a shortfall in people with the expertise needed to run and regulate the nuclear energy industry, create medicines that harness radiation, and help develop the technology to defend the country against nuclear threats. Enrollment in nuclear engineering programs had been on the decline for years, and the number of universities offering these degrees dropped from 80 to 40 in the 1990s.

The public’s indifference and anti-nuclear sentiments aren’t hard to trace. The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 had soured interest in nuclear energy. The last US reactor to start construction had broken ground in 1974. Nuclear energy looked like a dying industry, and some argued that it should be allowed to perish.

The crash

Funding for nuclear fission research from the Department of Energy“Nuclear energy funding from the Department of Energy really tanked during the Clinton administration, especially during the first term,” said John Lee, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences (NERS) and former chair of the department.

William Martin, professor of NERS, was the chair during Clinton’s first year, when the Department of Energy cut funding contracts mid-year. This was particularly bad news for students counting on those grants for their doctoral studies. “All of a sudden, they were left high and dry,” said Martin.

Martin and the Nuclear Engineering Department Heads Organization responded to the aggressive cuts by writing to the President and contacting members of Congress, explaining why nuclear energy and engineering are important to the future of the country. But they didn’t seem to make any headway. By 1998, funding for nuclear energy research had all but disappeared.

The case for nuclear

Yet the alarm over carbon-dioxide-induced global warming was beginning to resonate, and nuclear energy gained green appeal. “Since nuclear energy is carbon-free, it had to be part of the energy infrastructure if we would combat climate change,” said Duderstadt.

National security joined with the environmental anxiety. If the US no longer had a viable nuclear industry, the country could lose its influence on nuclear reactor safety and efforts to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

“If we abdicated our role in nuclear power, then we would give up our position as a leader, and the world would move on without us,” said Martin.

At last, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology took up the cause of the nuclear engineers, sharing their concern that the US would soon face a shortfall in qualified nuclear professionals. To reinvigorate nuclear engineering, the council created the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee (NERAC) in 1998 and appointed Duderstadt as its first chair.

Recovering research

“We had marching orders from the White House,” said Duderstadt. NERAC needed to define research priorities, recommend ways to support education and research facilities, and develop strategies to keep existing reactors working safely beyond their original licensed periods.

The research directions defined by the committee still influence the field today. Many projects receive funding through the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative, a program developed under Duderstadt’s leadership. This merit-reviewed funding strategy also had strong support from the organization of department heads.

“That was a good turnaround to a large extent,” said Lee. “During the last few years we have done considerably better in terms of nuclear energy research funding.”

NERAC also got the ball rolling on the development of so-called “fourth generation” reactors, new designs that can consume waste from conventional reactors while producing more energy. Construction on these theoretical reactors could begin in the late 2020s.

“I think these programs reignited research and development of nuclear energy in this country, which would have died out if we hadn’t had that mission,” said Duderstadt. “Without the work of the committee, there would not have been a nuclear renaissance.”

Still, NERAC and the department chairs didn’t win all their battles. The closures of research reactors on university campuses – including U-M’s own Ford Nuclear Reactor – could not be stopped. “This was a local decision, in the face of strong support from the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep the Ford Nuclear Reactor alive,” said Martin.

Nuclear’s future

Yet the revival of US interest in nuclear energy has brought the undergraduate students back, preventing the crisis projected at the turn of the millennium. In the mid-90s, enrollment hit a low of 30 to 40 undergraduate students total in sophomore to senior classes, said Lee. Now, the U-M NERS department is nearly at capacity with about 130 students across those same classes.

The future foJames Duderstadtr nuclear energy in the US looks much brighter than it did when NERAC formed, but with low natural gas prices driven by gas shale fracturing technology and the concerns triggered by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, nuclear engineers remain cautious, said Duderstadt.

“The industry is a business that must be cost competitive,” he said. He believes that carbon-based fuels should be taxed so that their environmental impact is accounted for in the cost of energy. This pricing strategy is already in effect for nuclear power plants as electricity consumers are taxed 0.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for disposal of nuclear waste. “If that were done [for fossil fuels], nuclear power would rapidly become a highly competitive source of energy,” he said.

Article topics: Nuclear Energy


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