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Nuclear engineering degrees decrease, enrollments increase in 2009

ORISE report shows unexpected decline in 2009 in nuclear engineering degrees but largest enrollment since mid 1980s

July 27, 2010

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—Reversing a more than five-year growth trend, the number of nuclear engineering undergraduate and graduate degrees earned in the United States declined in 2009, says a recent report from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

Future growth in the number of nuclear engineering graduates is likely, however, because of 2009’s growth in enrollment, the ORISE report said.

The ORISE report, Nuclear Engineering Enrollments and Degrees Survey, 2009 Data, surveyed 32 U.S. academic programs and included students majoring in nuclear engineering or a program equivalent to a major.

B.S. degrees decreased in 2009 after five consecutive years of increases and were 13 percent fewer than in 2008. The number of graduate degrees earned was down 10 percent over 2008, after six consecutive years of increases. The ORISE report calls the decrease in graduate degrees unexpected as graduate enrollments have grown since 2001.

According to the report, a total of 715 nuclear engineering B.S., M.S. and Ph.D degrees were earned in 2009.

Richard Toohey, associate director of Oak Ridge Associated Universities’ Independent Environmental Assessment and Verification Program, believes long-term trends will continue to be positive. “B.S. and M.S. degrees are most in demand in the nuclear industry and government agencies today to staff up for the inevitable nuclear renaissance,” said Toohey, who is also a recent past president of the National Health Physics Society.

Additionally, the ORISE report breakdown showed the University of Michigan led the way in numbers of B.S. degrees, with 37 earned in 2009. Two schools tied in highest numbers of M.S. degrees. Georgia Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology each granted 24.

In nuclear engineering Ph.D. degrees earned in 2009, Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported the highest number at 15.

Enrollment of nuclear engineering undergraduates largest since mid 1980s

Despite the decline in B.S. and graduate degrees, the ORISE report forecasts growth to resume in nuclear engineering graduates. This is because enrollment of junior and senior nuclear engineering undergraduate students grew about 15 percent in 2009 above the number reported in 2008 - making the 1,500 undergraduate enrollments the largest reported since the mid 1980s.

Graduate enrollment of nearly 1,300 students also increased about five percent over 2008, holding a steady growth trend since 2001.

Among B.S. graduates, 13 percent of the U.S. citizens were members of minority groups, and among the M.S. graduates, 16 percent of the U.S. citizens were members of minority groups. Women comprised 18 percent of the B.S. graduates, 22 percent of the M.S. graduates and 20 percent of the Ph.D. graduates, the report said.

Twenty percent of the U.S. citizens among the Ph.D. graduates were members of minority groups.

Continuing a long-term trend, nearly 38 percent of Ph.D. graduates were non-U.S. citizens, and 13 percent of M.S. graduates were non-U.S. citizens.

While no new nuclear plant has been started in the United States since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, a nuclear renaissance may be on the horizon.

In his 2010 State of the Union Address, President Obama proposed “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants” to reduce carbon emissions and promote U.S. energy independence. In February, he announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two reactors to be built in Georgia.

Since the 1970s ORISE has collected and/or monitored data on enrollments and degrees in science and energy-related fields of study for the U.S. Department of Energy and other federal agencies.

To view the ORISE report, go to Nuclear Engineering Enrollments and Degrees Survey, 2009 Data (PDF, 51 KB)

ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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