Virginia Tech nuclear expert says US needs to rebuild its nuclear workforce

Part 1: The Changing Politics of Nuclear Power Brings Some Liberals and Some Conservatives Together.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for the construction of a new breed of nuclear weapons, called small modular reactors, or SMRs, to be built in Southwest Virginia.

Youngkin, along with Republican lawmakers from coal country, are the cheerleaders. The real players here are the state utilities, most notably Dominion Energy, which signaled their interest in adding an SMR to their energy fleet well before Youngkin’s approval. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. You too can be one of our donors and have no say.)

Most discussions about these small reactors have focused on political or philosophical questions: do we need more nuclear energy? (Youngkin says we’re doing this because it’s reliable baseload power; critics say renewable energy will make the concept of baseload power obsolete.) Should nuclear power be considered clean energy? (Proponents point to it being carbon-free; critics point to nuclear waste.) Why should we put nuclear power in Southwest Virginia? (Youngkin says it’s because the region has an energy-centric workforce, critics complain that Southwest Virginia has historically been treated as a “sacrificial zone,” and Dominion notes that there is an SMR at one of its existing nuclear facilities, particularly in the north , could set up Anna Station in Louisa County.)

Now comes a Virginia Tech professor, widely regarded as an expert in nuclear power, who addresses a more practical consideration: He says the biggest challenge in developing these new small nuclear reactors isn’t a question of engineering challenges, but one staff question.

In an interview published on Virginia Tech’s website, Alireza Haghighat, professor of nuclear engineering, said, “In my opinion, the greatest challenge is training the workforce at all levels and in various aspects of a nuclear project.”

Haghighat continued, “State governments with serious plans to invest in small modular reactors should be prepared to invest in education, from K-12 programs to vocational training to nuclear engineering programs, both undergraduate and graduate level. From 1970 to 1990, the US built about 100 nuclear reactors, but very few have been built since then, and these capabilities are no longer readily used.”

That intrigued me, so I pursued it further. I asked him what kind of programs the state should put in place if it intends to create a new nuclear workforce. This is clearly something Haghighat has been thinking about. He responded with a point-by-point curriculum.

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Some points are obvious and do not necessarily apply to the education of future nuclear engineers. For example, he says K-12 schools should improve their math, physics, and computer programming curricula. I suspect that even someone strongly opposed to splitting atoms would agree; we need these skills for many other things. But Haghighat also says we should educate science teachers on the “basics of radiation and radiation detection and protection” and how nuclear technology can be used – be it in energy or medicine. (I’m trying to remember what I learned about nuclear things in my school days, aside from having to memorize the periodic table of the elements. All I can remember is an elementary school teacher telling us that atomic bombs are handy because we could use them to blast a new channel through Nicaragua. I’m pretty sure that’s not on the curriculum today. That may be why my nuclear expertise today is limited to using a microwave oven, sometimes even successful.)

Haghighat says to have a nuclear-capable workforce, we need our high school careers and engineering programs and community colleges to train more welders, electricians and construction workers. Again, this is not unique to nuclear power. I recently met with Secretary of Labor Bryan Slater in Richmond, and he told me that one of the state’s greatest needs is more welders.

Where things get more concrete is at the college level. Haghighat presents a four-point plan for this:

· Improvement and establishment of nuclear engineering departments to obtain BS, MS and Ph.D. Degree.

· Improvement and establishment of programs/certificates for the training of other engineers in nuclear technology.

· Expansion and establishment of nuclear laboratories (radiation detection, detector design, thermal hydraulics, nuclear materials) on university campuses.

· Improvement and construction of test and research reactors and/or deployment of novel microreactors at universities with the dual purpose of generating electricity on campus as well as education and research.

That gives us a lot to think about (and write for me!). Here’s what really caught my attention:

“In 1978 (when I started college) in the US there were 48 nuclear engineering schools and 51 nuclear engineering programs housed in other engineering disciplines,” Haghighat said via email. “In addition, 65 research reactors have been built at various universities to support nuclear research and education. Today we have 14 nuclear engineering departments and 16 nuclear engineering programs, and only 25 out of 65 research reactors are operational. I should mention that most reactors are 60-70 years old and not equipped to train the next generation of nuclear engineers.”

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Those are pretty amazing numbers. Out of 48 nuclear engineering departments, only 14 are now left? None of these are in Virginia (the closest ones are in the state of North Carolina and at the University of Tennessee). Of the 16 programs that exist as part of larger departments, two are located in Virginia – at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech. So one thing is clear: unless another school wants to get into the nuclear education business, if Virginia pursues its nuclear ambitions, it will go through either Blacksburg or Richmond. It’s certainly possible: this year’s General Assembly passed a bill by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, for establishing a nuclear education grant fund and program to be administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia; grants will be given to all schools that offer nuclear programs. (This bill passed the Senate unanimously and the House of Representatives 93-6; the only Southwest Virginia legislator to vote against was Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, the rare conservative to voice her skepticism about nuclear power.) Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote more extensively about the Atomic Energy Act in the last session.

Fun fact: Both Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia used to have small reactors for research purposes. Techs operated from 1962 to 1981, Virginias from 1960 to 1998. (Ralph Berrier wrote about Tech’s reactor for Cardinal in this recent story.) The nuclear reactors of both schools were from another time; The first commercial nuclear reactors in the United States came online in 1958, and the demand for a nuclear-trained workforce was high. Over the next two decades, nuclear power generation in the United States grew from 10,000 megawatt hours to 274,403,000 megawatt hours — a 27,400-fold increase, according to the US Department of Energy. However, interest in nuclear energy declined significantly after the accident at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania in 1979, although capacity continued to increase as nuclear projects still under construction came online. We just didn’t build many new ones after that. Over the past two decades, nuclear power generation in the United States has remained about the same: 778,152,000 megawatt hours in 2021.

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Now there’s renewed interest in nuclear power, driven by two things: the push to decarbonize the power grid and the promise of these small (and presumably cheaper) reactors. For many years, political views on nuclear energy were divided along ideological lines, with the left being most skeptical and the right most supportive. This is getting messed up now. Here in Virginia, it’s the Republicans – led by Youngkin – who are most enthusiastically pushing for small modular reactors. At the national level, however, it is the Biden administration, which has embraced the technology, that sees SMRs as a way to meet both climate goals and national security goals. One of the most prominent voices warning of climate change is Microsoft founder Bill Gates; He has also become a vocal advocate of nuclear energy. Like Youngkin, he’s not convinced that renewable energy alone can carry the burden.

However, no form of energy will emerge unless there is labor available to build it. Haghighat isn’t the only warning that we don’t have enough nuclear-trained workers. Atlantic magazine recently covered nuclear power and wrote that the United States had lost the technological edge it once had. After Three Mile Island, the magazine wrote: “Supply chains dried up; Talented engineers and executives sought greener pastures. The United States, once the world leader in the industry, has become a follower.” Haghighat cites China and South Korea as the current world leaders in nuclear technology. Within the United States, the states with the best nuclear intelligence programs are Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. (Haghighat spoke more about these issues in a recent interview with a television station in Washington, DC.)

At the last session of the General Assembly, Youngkin pushed for creating a larger nuclear industry in Virginia, but didn’t get all he wanted. For example, he wanted money for nuclear research; A state Senate panel has rejected this, saying utilities should be able to pay for their own research. For those who don’t think we should split atoms, saying no is the easy way out. For those who believe nuclear power is an essential part of our electricity grid, a chat with Haghighat might be in order – followed by a slew of education funding.

Tomorrow: Can coal plant workers become nuclear plant workers?