WASHINGTON When the top U.S. nuclear regulator addressed industry leaders in March, he spoke about a problem often neglected in public debates about nuclear energy: the threat of a labor shortage.
"Where are we going to get the educated and skilled workers to safely run the current fleet (of reactors) over extended lifetimes and the potential nuclear plants of the future?" asked Dale Klein, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Where are they being educated? Where are they being trained?"
The U.S. government, energy experts and even some environmentalists see a revival of nuclear power as a clean energy alternative, but that resurgence may be held up by a lack of qualified workers.
As nuclear power went out of fashion in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, college nuclear engineering programs were shuttered and fewer workers have entered the field.
Some 103 reactors currently generate about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, with the last one coming on line in 1996 in Tennessee.
That number could increase. A new focus on global warming, which most scientist say is caused by gases emitted by burning fossil fuels, has brought coal-, oil- and gas-fired generation under scrutiny. While nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste, they do not emit greenhouse gases, and energy experts say a new nuclear plant could break ground as early as 2010.
Financial incentives laced through a 2005 energy law have some excited about a "nuclear renaissance."
But the nuclear engineers and technicians who landed their jobs in the 1970s are retiring and there are few trained to take their places.
Carol Berrigan, who researches nuclear infrastructure for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobby group, described the coming labor shortage as a "looming trend."
A 2005 study by the Institute found that half of the industry's employees were over 47 years old, while less than 8 percent of employees were younger than 32. Most Americans retire after turning 65, and the survey found more than a quarter of nuclear workers were already eligible to stop working.
Even the government's regulator, the NRC, is scrambling to add 200 new employees this year just to monitor the sector, Klein said.
The number of nuclear engineering majors at colleges around the country has risen to 1,800 last year from just 500 in 1998, according to the Energy Department, but that is still not enough to feed current needs.
Companies have realized they must abandon their usual strategy of raiding each other's worker pool and seek new talent, said Mike Pasono, head of recruiting for Nuclear Management Company, which operates three reactors.
Pasono makes a job offer sometimes a year before a college student graduates. There are so few nuclear majors that he gives positions to electrical and mechanical engineers.
"There is no one, other than the people who are really struggling academically, and I mean really struggling, in our department who's worried about a job," said Gary Sanford, a senior in nuclear engineering at the University of Florida.
He said recruiters flood conferences and utilities give campus seminars with human resources representatives in tow. It's a radical change from his freshman year in 2002 when he considered working for a doctorate because there were so few job openings.
Many who sign on are too young to remember Three Mile Island or the 1986 accident at Ukraine's Chernobyl reactor, and are not nervous about safety.
"There's a lot less emotion involved there," said Tracey Radel, 23, of her fellow students in the nuclear engineering program at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Radel, who considers herself an environmentalist, sees nuclear energy as an earth-friendly alternative to coal and gas.
Sanford, the University of Florida student, said patriotism inspired him to work on energy generation that did not involve foreign oil.
Neither student said they were drawn by the field's pay, even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average starting salary for a nuclear engineer with a bachelors degree is $51,182, higher than many other areas.
Forbes magazine recently listed plant operators as one of its top 10 best-paying blue-collar jobs, with an estimated income of $56,472.
To find new workers, the industry also sponsors community college programs, joins other energy sectors in recruiting and educates middle school students about the field, and even recruits from the armed forces.
"We've realized the value of going after trained military workers," Pasono said.
He seeks officers and those who served on nuclear submarines. Some groups use the four-year-old Helmets to Hard Hats program, which trains veterans for construction jobs.
Radel said she found her life's work during a high school visit to a nuclear reactor.
"I thought the technology was really cool, but I liked that it helped people," she said.