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The nuclear industry is struggling. It can't compete with cheaper natural gas. Half the country's reactors are at risk of closing. And yet the number of people getting degrees in nuclear engineering has tripled in recent years. NPR's Jeff Brady looks at what's motivating many of them.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Ask this new generation of nuclear engineers why they got into the field, and their passion may surprise you.
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LESLIE DEWAN: So I'm here because I think I can save the world with nuclear power.
BRADY: Leslie Dewan pitched her design for a new kind of reactor a few years back. She says climate change and the fact that nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases are the big reason she became a nuclear engineer. And she's not alone. Dennis Whyte heads the Nuclear Science and Engineering Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the years, he's had many conversations with students like Dewan.
DENNIS WHYTE: I would talk with them about their motivation for coming into the field. It was just inevitably around clean energy.
BRADY: Whyte says it's sobering to look at what's required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the effects of climate change. Chris Wolfe works for a South Carolina utility and agrees.
CHRIS WOLFE: You can't get there without nuclear in the fuel mix.
BRADY: The number of nuclear engineering degrees awarded each year peaked in the late-1970s, then it dropped steadily amid the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in Pennsylvania and the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union. Numbers started to climb again in 2001 as talk of climate change increased. That left an age gap in the nuclear workforce with many now ready to retire.
WOLFE: Baby boomers are leaving the industry, so there are a lot of job opportunities.
BRADY: After all, the country still gets a fifth of its electricity from nuclear. Wolfe chose to work at a utility for job security, but she's cheering on nuclear entrepreneurs like Leslie Dewan, the person who wants to save the world. Dewan cofounded a startup business called Transatomic that has raised about $6 million from investors.
DEWAN: We're adopting something that's called a molten salt reactor that was first developed in the very, very early days of the nuclear industry back in the 1950s and the 1960s.
BRADY: With modern materials and a few changes, she believes such a reactor can be financially viable today. Her company's first design aimed to use spent nuclear fuel to generate electricity, but it turned out some of the calculations were wrong. Still, this new design would produce about half the waste of existing nuclear plants. And Dewan says it's safer because the effects of a meltdown would be limited to the plant site.
DEWAN: Part of why we started this company is that we wanted the type of nuclear reactor that people would want to have in their communities.
BRADY: That's a hard sell to anti-nuclear activists like Eric Epstein of the watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert. At Pennsylvania's Capitol building, where he's lobbying against subsidies for nuclear plants, Epstein says he doesn't trust this new wave of nuclear engineers.
ERIC EPSTEIN: I'm seeing the same arrogance I saw in the '70s. I think the new generation is like the old generation in that they view themselves as flawless high priests of technology, that they have the answer.
BRADY: Leslie Dewan sees that skepticism as a legacy her generation will have to address. But she thinks the problem of climate change is too important to give up on nuclear energy now. Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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