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ORISE report shows graduation, enrollment rates for nuclear engineering candidates are still at highest ranges reported since 1980s

Report also shows shifts in career opportunities beyond graduation in nuclear utilities

Nov. 2, 2011

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—After a one-year decline, the number of graduate and undergraduate nuclear engineering degrees earned in the United States bounced back in 2010. A recent report from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education shows enrollments of both undergraduate and graduate nuclear engineering students are still in the highest ranges reported since the early 1980s.

Despite the continued growth trend in enrollments and degrees, the report also revealed that the reported plans of graduates show fewer had plans to work at nuclear power plants and utilities.

The ORISE report, Nuclear Engineering Enrollments and Degrees Survey, 2010 Data, surveyed 32 U.S. academic programs and included students majoring in nuclear engineering or a program equivalent to a major.

Graduate, undergraduate nuclear engineering degrees increased from last year
After briefly declining in 2009, the number of B.S. degrees increased in 2010 but still remains 2 percent lower than in 2008. The number of graduate degrees reported in 2010 also increased. While the number of master's degrees is still in the highest ranges reported since 1985, doctoral degrees increased in 2010 but are still 11 percent below the number reported in 2008. According to the report, a total of 859 nuclear engineering B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees were granted in 2010 (specific breakdowns can be found in the report).

Additionally, the ORISE report breakdown showed that Pennsylvania State University led the way in numbers of B.S. degrees, with 50 granted in 2010. The highest for master's degrees, the University of Michigan granted 40 M.S. degrees, which is not surprising considering the university had the highest number of B.S. degrees granted in 2009. For the second year in a row, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology granted the highest number of Ph.D. degrees at 15. 

Enrollment in nuclear engineering programs at its highest since 1982
In 2010, nuclear engineering enrollments for undergraduate and graduate students were up 18 percent and 19 percent, respectively, when compared to 2009. There were nearly 1,800 junior and senior nuclear engineering undergraduate students, which will likely generate an increase in the number of bachelor's degrees earned over the next two years. Also, graduate student enrollments totaled more than 1,500. Both undergraduate and graduate enrollment numbers represent the highest reported enrollment since 1982.

Employment opportunities in nuclear utilities for new graduates may have shifted
The ORISE report also looked at post-graduation plans reported for 2010 graduates and concluded that there are several shifts in employment opportunities for new graduates. Specifically, reported plans of 2010 B.S. graduates to work for nuclear utilities is significantly lower than was the case in 2008 (the last year placement data was collected).

There were 70 B.S. graduates employed at nuclear utilities in 2008, yet two years later, in 2010, that number dropped to 49. The number of Ph.D. graduates employed in nuclear utilities also dropped from 3 in 2008 to just 1 in 2010. M.S. graduates, the only category of graduates to increase their employment numbers at nuclear utilities, rose to 30, up from 18 in 2008.

"The current economic downturn has kept some retirement-seeking nuclear employees working longer than they anticipated, and loan guarantees for the construction of new, nuclear power plants may fall victim to budget restrictions, which would obviously mean less opportunities for new graduates," said Dr. Dick Toohey, ORAU's associate director of environmental assessment programs and former HPS president. "However, because a significant number of nuclear engineers are still expected to retire in the near term and because nuclear energy continues to be a viable alternative to other carbon-emitting sources, it's likely that our country will still experience a nuclear renaissance."

In addition to nuclear utilities, the report also covers employment rates for other nuclear-related businesses.

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, 2010 Data (PDF, 26 KB).

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