Decline of Nuclear Engineering Programs in Universities

Ken Ferguson
March 22, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012

Fig. 1: Gap Between Staffing Supply and Demand of Nuclear Engineers. [4]


In 1950, Clifford Beck, with support from North Carolina State's Dean of Engineering, came up with the idea of building the first university nuclear reactor. Faculty members joined Dr. Beck to create the first university nuclear engineering educational curriculum, and in 1953, the first reactor dedicated to education and academic research was completed. [1] Over the next two decades, there became an increasing number of nuclear engineering programs in the United States, until the mid 70s, when the number of programs started to decline. In the early 90s, many universities cut nuclear programs, and enrollment up to the early 2000s was lower than it has been since the 1960s. [2]

Why the Decline?

Public perception of the nuclear industry is considered "poor," often because of negative media coverage. [2,3] Nuclear disasters, such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima result in more negative connotations with nuclear energy. [3]

Another problem is that students perceive a lack of career prospects in nuclear engineering. [2] Unfortunately, this is not really the case, though. Fig. 1 shows the gap between staffing supply and demand of nuclear engineers through 2011. [4] Even though this is not a real problem (nuclear jobs have been plentiful over the years), the effect cannot be neglected. Since fewer want to enroll in nuclear programs, universities are cutting curricula based on a set of nuclear subjects.

Fig. 2: Age Distribution of Nuclear Faculty Members in the United States in 1998. [2]

Causes for Concern?

There are major factors that cause concern for the nuclear engineering community. If these problems are not addressed, the United States will fall further behind in nuclear energy training. [2]

First, there has been a decreasing number of nuclear engineering programs. [2] Universities have seen declining enrollment and some universities have removed nuclear engineering from their curriculums completely. Other universities have merged nuclear programs with other departments, such as mechanical or environmental engineering. [2]

Second, there is a decreasing number of students studying nuclear subjects. [2] From 1990 to 1998, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in nuclear subjects declined by 10%. [2,4]

Thirdly, aging and retiring faculty members in nuclear engineering programs are not being replaced by younger faculty members. With few new young faculty members, when older faculty members retire, there will be a reduction in the number of courses universities can offer. This will affect both the quality and quantity of graduates in the field. [2] As we can see from Fig. 2, in 1998 the average age of professors in the nuclear field was 50, and nearly half of the faculty members were older than 50. [2]

A fourth concern is that research facilities are aging. These aging facilities are being closed, but not being replaced. Most university nuclear equipment and facilities are over 25 years old, and many research reactors have been decommissioned. [2] Without cutting-edge facilities, cutting-edge research cannot be done at the university level. Old facilities also deter students and faculty members from joining the nuclear field. [2]

Recent Developments

There are some positive developments that can be found in a number of universities today, though. Many schools are providing an introduction to nuclear engineering through basic courses in the field. [2] Universities are also providing information to potential high school students to stimulate interest in the subject. [2] Internship programs, industry scholarships, and lectures by industry experts are providing a link between industry and academia at the university level, and more students are being funded for PhDs by both private companies and government initiatives. [2]


Since nuclear engineering programs began in the 1950s, the area has experienced a decline. This is due to public opinion, perceived lack of career prospects, and declining facilities. There are many causes for concern, but a recent increase in funding from the Department of Energy seems to be revitalizing the field, as more students are enrolling in nuclear programs in the United States.

© Ken Ferguson. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Olympian Feats," Oak Ridge National Laboratory Review 25, Nos. 3 and 4, 96 (1992).

[2] Nuclear Education and Training: Cause for Concern? (OECD Press, 2000).

[3] A. Mazur, "Media Coverage and Public Opinion on Scientific Controversies," J. Communcation 31, 106 (1981).

[4] N. A. Wogman et al., "The Nuclear Education and Staffing Challenge: Rebuilding Critical Skills in Nuclear Science and Technology," J. Radioanalyt. Nucl. Chem. 263, 137 (2005).