During day three of the ANS Winter Meeting, I chose to focus my efforts to learn about advances and efforts underway in the areas of training and education. That area seems very important to me – as the Second Atomic Age begins it will be very important to work diligently to train operators, technicians, engineers, scientists, radiation workers, and a myriad of other specialties involved with safe construction and operation of nuclear power plants. In addition, it would certainly benefit the industry and the world if people outside the industry learned more about its capabilities and importance in the world’s future energy supplies.
I listened to a number of speakers that were reporting on their efforts to develop new curricula, to increase the use of distance learning technologies, to improve their school’s lab infrastructure and to open the use of their reactors and radiation facilities to other disciplines outside of nuclear engineering. There is a good base on which to build, but that base is in danger of being overwhelmed by demand if the building does not start soon.
It takes several years to train new people and that training delay time cannot be changed very rapidly. The number of new people that can be trained during that delay, however, is quite changeable and with proper resourcing can be adequate to the task. There are a lot of teachers and mentors available now; there will be fewer in 5 years if we do not move forward.
Day 3 afternoon
In the afternoon, I attended a session with reports from several different university consortia who had received funding under the US Department of Energy’s Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education (INIE) program during the past 3-4 years. The grants provided by the department had been effectively leveraged with university money and other sources of outside funding to make significant improvements in departments that had been quite neglected during the last few decades when it looked like Nuclear Engineering was a shrinking profession with few prospects for exciting jobs.
One professor who spoke indicated how just a few tens of thousands of dollars had been welcomed into his department and spent to upgrade computers and lab equipment, replacing vintage stuff that had given a poor impression to potential students. He seemed quite pleased that his department could begin to compete in glitz with computer science and biotechnology.
Unfortunately, I overheard some conversations both before and after that session that led me to believe that the DOE is considering halting the INIE program and rolling its money into the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) program. I was not able to confirm this impression, but I will be making additional inquiries during the next few days.
I think that shifting money out of INIE would be a huge mistake – the amount of money is relatively trivial amounting to several million dollars spread amongst a couple of dozen recipients. It is, however, a big indicator to the universities that the field should not be neglected. American colleges and universities seem to expect that the federal government agency called the Department of Energy will provide leadership and indications of where it expects new developments to occur. If the DOE stops putting that money directly into the universities and colleges, that will send the wrong signal at the wrong time.