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In September 2019, the last Three Mile Island reactor unit shut down permanently. In the United States, less than 100 nuclear power reactors are still operating, following a peak of 112 in 1990. Despite the closures, in 2018 the amount of electricity generated by nuclear energy in the United States was at an all-time high, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). New reactor designs, including the small modular reactor under development near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, are being explored.

“Nuclear is in a very tenuous position,” said Eric Abelquist, Ph.D., C.H.P., ORAU executive vice president and chief research officer. Abelquist, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering and is past president of the Health Physics Society, said that nuclear energy is at a critical juncture, especially in the United States, with additional reactors being targeted for shutdown, the lifecycle of other reactors being extended, and the next generation of reactor technology currently being explored. Unfavorable economics and slack demand in the current electricity market also are cited as contributing to nuclear energy’s dynamic situation that presents both challenges and opportunities.

Verifying final cleanup of closing sites

EIA reported that, by 2025, 12 additional U.S. nuclear reactors likely will close, including two that were scheduled to retire in 2019 and three more in 2020. To ensure these aging plants are safely shut down, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the multiyear decommissioning process and conducts periodic inspections, including various radiological surveys. “That’s where ORAU steps in,” said Abelquist. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) looks to us as its primary independent verification contractor to ensure radiological cleanup protocols have been met, and public health and safety will be protected.”

As a leader in the health physics industry, ORAU has been instrumental in developing environmental assessment standards that are used in these and other cleanup projects. For example, ORAU health physics experts were involved with the development of the Multi-Agency Radiation Survey and Site Investigation Manual, the nationally recognized standard for planning and executing radiological surveys. “ORAU’s radiological expertise has resulted in trusted partnerships with NRC, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and others in the environmental management community when it comes to critical radiological cleanup projects,” said Abelquist. For nearly four decades, ORAU has conducted radiological site assessments, environmental survey and sample analysis for DOE and NRC and has completed independent verification of environmental cleanup at more than 500 sites.

Filling STEM pipeline with specialized workers

Today’s nuclear energy field calls for highly specialized and trained personnel who can safely manage the cleanup as well as the operations of existing reactors and any new designs in the future.

For more than 50 years, ORAU’s experts in workforce studies have tracked education trends in health physics and nuclear engineering for the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. “We keep close tabs on how many students are pursuing these degrees and look for trends that would suggest a potential gap in filling the pipeline for these highly trained workers,” explained Don Johnson, Ph.D., who studies the economics of specialized labor markets. “It is important that the United States does what it can to continue supporting STEM education to ensure the growth in these fields meets future demands.”

Key to maintaining and building an effective STEM pipeline is lifelong touchpoints that attract and develop these critical workers throughout their careers. STEM education programs, starting as early as kindergarten, can lead to high school and college students being more willing to consider a future in fields such as nuclear engineering and health physics or other highly technical scientific fields. Internships, such as the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) Program through ORISE, are vital in this effort. The NESLS Program provides students nuclear engineering research opportunities starting as early as a student’s freshman year in college and extending to postgraduate work.

The nuclear industry needs a reliable way of finding these well-trained candidates who can fuel the future of the industry, and students need to know they can find good jobs once they have completed their education or other training programs. ORAU’s recruiters fill this niche by reaching into our networks of talent to locate those hard-to-find candidates. ORAU’s expertise in finding the right candidates for these highly technical fields is backed by more than 70 years of experience designing, recruiting and managing fellowship and internship programs for federal agencies and private sector customers as well as engaging with universities that attract top STEM talent through our 125-member university consortium.

Continual training is also needed so those in the industry can stay on top of changing technology and regulations. Since 1948, ORAU has trained tens of thousands of scientists, physicians, engineers, educators, regulators and personnel in a variety of radiation safety and health physics topics through our Professional Training Programs. Training and educating a highly skilled workforce that can meet operational requirements in the area of radiation safety and health physics is an essential part of protecting workers, the public and the environment when it comes to realizing a viable future for nuclear energy.

Ensuring a safe environment for workers

A leading radiation research organization for more than 70 years, ORAU has invested resources into better understanding impacts of low-dose radiation exposure. “Over the last couple of decades, research has started to reveal that the body has repair mechanisms that we did not study in our radiation biology textbooks back in the ’80s and ’90s,” Abelquist explained. “We’re intimately involved in research, such as radiation protection needs, low-dose exposure modeling, etc., that will lead to a better understanding of how to best protect workers.”

One major research project that has been underway for nearly 25 years looks at the impacts of low-dose radiation exposure on a million U.S. workers from DOE Manhattan Project facilities, NRC-regulated nuclear power plants, and U.S. Department of Defense nuclear weapons test sites, among many others. Much of the data for this research is being mined from the extensive radiation databases managed by ORAU that include health data for 3.5 million active and former energy workers. “Low-dose radiation research is paramount in being able to set appropriate radiation regulations for workers,” said Abelquist.

Nuclear radiation safety and security also must be embedded into the mindset of nuclear workers. Jeff Miller, Ph.D., C.I.H., C.S.P., a senior scientist at ORAU, who has surveyed more than 30,000 nuclear workers on safety and security culture, has developed a new security culture model (see sidebar on adjacent page) for nuclear facilities. His proposed model focuses on how environmental factors, such as global affairs and geopolitics, affect the work environment and how that in turn affects leadership behavior and organizational performance.

The future of nuclear energy can hold much promise, but there are many challenges that must be addressed to pave the way for its long-term sustainability and future development.

“Many people believe that the future of nuclear will be a solution that will save lives, save our nation’s future,” Abelquist shared. “Our people also believe in the future of nuclear and that’s why so much of our efforts and expertise are designed to grow and respond to the changes in this critical industry.”