Nuclear engineering grads on the rise

oriseThe number of nuclear engineering graduates increased at U.S. universities in 2015, resuming a growth trend that was interrupted by a one-year dip in 2014.

That was among the findings of an annual study conducted by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

The institute surveyed 35 universities with nuclear engineering programs, including the University of Tennessee. UT has one of the largest programs and last year awarded 40 bachelor’s degrees in nuclear engineering, 28 master’s degrees, and 9 doctorates.

“We see nuclear engineering enrollment and employment opportunities still strong,” Wes Hines, head of UT’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, said via email. “With the need for carbon-free electricity to reduce the negative environmental impacts of coal and natural gas, nuclear power will continue to be the only environmentally friendly choice for new base load electricity generation.”

Hines said his department also expects continued strength in advanced nuclear research technology “to further improve safety and economic viability. This research demand continues to drive our Ph.D. enrollment, which is already the largest in the country.”

The overall survey found that 652 U.S. students received bachelor’s degrees with majors in nuclear engineering in 2015 (between Sept. 1, 2014 and Aug. 31, 2015). That was a 4 percent increase over the previous year — and the second highest number reported since 1984.

However, the institute noted that those numbers are still well below the peak years for nuclear engineering in the 1970s.

The number of master’s degrees in nuclear engineering awarded in 2015 increased by 13 percent over the previous year and was nearly identical to the number in 2013. The report said the 363 master’s degrees awarded were the most since the 1980s.

The number of doctorates in 2015 actually declined by 13 percent, but the report said the 147 total — the same as in 2013 — was still the second highest reported since 1972.

According to the Oak Ridge institute’s report, Pennsylvania State University had the largest number of nuclear engineering degrees awarded in 2015, followed by Texas A&M and UT. Other top programs are located at the University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, Georgia Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, University of Wisconsin, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Overall, the number of students enrolling in undergraduate and graduate programs in nuclear engineering were up by 23 percent and 5 percent.

The number of students enrolling in undergraduate programs is below the level reported in 2013, and the survey team predicted the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2016 will likely remain in the range of 630 to 650 — although it could drop lower.

Oak Ridge Associated Universities, which manages the Department of Energy institute, has collected data and analyzed enrollment and degree statistics since the mid-1970s.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.