Securing a Sustainable Energy Future

Nuclear engineering alumnus addresses challenges of a nuclear renaissance

Sustainability with our energy use, hand-in-hand with security, is critical to a worldwide future. As we embark on a nuclear renaissance, it is truly an exciting time to be a nuclear engineer—both with the widespread activity supporting new plants and on-going license renewals, power up-rates, and other extensive enhancements at existing plants. Nuclear power plants are again being recognized as a very valuable asset, and the industry offers many career opportunities for nuclear and other engineers.

A large challenge for the U.S. nuclear renaissance is the impending retirement of many experienced engineers. The nuclear industry's average age is close to 50 years with a large age/experience gap between this group and new talent. Time is critical to effectively transfer decades of knowledge and know-how to a new, large workforce. This incoming group will need to support the ongoing safe, reliable operation of the current 104 U.S. nuclear plants as well as the design and construction of the next generation of nuclear plants.

At Sargent & Lundy, we specialize in the design of power plants and have been deeply involved in nuclear power since 1954. For us, nuclear power never went away. Over the past three years, we have sensed the need for more nuclear engineering support and have increased our new engineer hiring. Our base load work has enabled us to maintain an excellent core staff of nuclear-power experts and bring on new people but not at the level that will be needed for the new plant surge. Depending on our responsibility for the new plant design, we will utilize a staff of 250 to 400 engineers and designers (nuclear, mechanical, electrical, and structural). So, even at companies like ours, the challenge will be to effectively transfer the knowledge of experienced staff to a much larger group.

The foremost requirement is always plant safety. The design and construction of the new plants will be robust and more standardized. A revamped licensing process will provide a more stable, predictable regulatory environment and an "in-advance reactor design certification." Some of the Generation lll+ new plant design approaches are more of a passive-design philosophy with gravity-fed cooling water from elevated holding pools and natural convection for heat transfer. Other new plant designs have increased safety margins through the use of new design advances. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been reviewing and certifying these designs from the major reactor vendors, and this process will last through 2012. Additionally, 17 combined construction and operating license (COL) applications were developed and submitted to the NRC for a total of 26 reactors.

The critical path for the new plants is the continued smooth implementation of this new licensing process. The first actual plant construction will begin after completion of the NRC COL licensing review, probably in 2011. Engineers and skilled craftspeople are and will be a crucial part of this process. It has been estimated that as many as 350,000 new jobs will be created over the next 20 years in support of the potential new reactor growth.

Finally, we need to dispel concerns about nuclear energy and promote it. In many ways, the safety record and benefits of nuclear power speak for themselves, although, as we saw in the U.S. for a long period, the message was overshadowed. These nuclear plants are massive, reinforced structures designed to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, 100-year floods, and terrorist activities with layers of backup safety systems and the most sophisticated security and emergency preparedness plans in the U.S. industrial sector. The public has regained its confidence in nuclear power, and concern for global warming has helped highlight its emission-free benefits. Many environmentally concerned people now support nuclear power. Nuclear power as a safe, economically stable, clean source of electricity is a message that needs to continue to be reinforced.

-Jerome Blattner (BSNE ‘78, PE) is a senior vice president at Sargent & Lundy.