Hot job in Germany: nuclear engineer

Leaders Monday advocated for atomic energy, but few young scientists are entering the field.

Undeterred by the fact that Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear energy capacity by 2021, Phillip Schumann is pursuing his career goal of becoming a manager at one of his country's 17 nuclear plants.

"I believe that within the next 20 years, Germans will realize that nuclear energy will be necessary for our energy security," said the electrical engineering student at a nuclear industry fair here in February. "Although I am in the minority now, I am optimistic about the future for nuclear energy in Germany."

Mr. Schumann added that he was encouraged by recent statements such as German Economics Minister Michael Glos's call for a rethink of Germany's planned nuclear phase-out after the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute in January exposed the vulnerability of Europe's energy supply.

Across Europe, such reassessments of nuclear power are beginning to creep back onto the political scene. Even in antinuclear Germany, leaders raised the issue at a summit Monday on long-term energy policy.

Although many are skeptical about a nuclear revival, there is a growing expectation that the lifetimes of Germany's operational nuclear power plants could be extended to as much as 40 years. However, the country's nuclear workforce is imminently approaching a "retirement cliff," creating a pressing need for young nuclear engineers.

In 2001, not a single student graduated with a degree in nuclear engineering, a study by Germany's Society for Reactor Safety found. And as soon as 2010, 1,700 qualified new graduates will be needed to replace the latest wave of retirees at Germany's nuclear power plants, government agencies, and research facilities, according to the Competence Network on Nuclear Technology.

To address the personnel problem, the German Atomic Forum (DAtF), a nuclear industry group, started hosting in 2002 twice-yearly recruitment "colloquia," such as the mid- February session in Osnabruck, to attract young people to the field. The DAtF has been particularly interested in targeting students like Schumann, who study more general sciences, such as physics or electrical engineering, but lack specialization in nuclear technologies.

"Many young engineers believe that there is no future for them in the nuclear industry, but what they don't realize is that even if the phase-out policy remains, there will be jobs for at least another generation," says Dieter Marx, executive manager of the DAtF. He added that given Germany's high unemployment rate, the industry should be attractive because any qualified candidate will almost certainly be guaranteed a job.

As nations like China and India pave the way for the next generation of nuclear power plants, Chancellor Angela Merkel - a former physicist - has defended the merits of preserving or prolonging the use of nuclear energy in order to maintain Germany's global role as innovator and intellectual exporter.

"In my view, an ideologically motivated nuclear phase-out does not reflect economic demands," said Mrs. Merkel ahead of last September's general election. "For me, the question is, how can Germany - with its technical know-how - profit from this export potential?"

But since Merkel's conservatives formed a "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats after the election, she has insisted that her administration will respect the nuclear phase-out negotiated under her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, and his coalition partner, the Green Party. However, conservative members of parliament have publically advocated for nuclear energy, calling it "absolutely essential for the foreseeable future" in a position paper for Monday's summit.

The public is largely opposed to nuclear despite the fact that it accounts for roughly one-third of Germany's electricity supply. In a January Eurobarometer survey, only 17 percent of Germans said that they believe their government should prioritize nuclear energy development, compared with 27 percent in Finland, where construction began late last year on Europe's first new nuclear reactor in decades.

Of the 24 nuclear power plants currently under construction worldwide, 18 of those are located in Asia, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). China is planning to build 28 new reactors over the course of the next few decades. India, meanwhile, has eight nuclear plants under construction, and plans to expand its nationwide nuclear capacity 10-fold by 2022.

If Germany loses its position as a leader in the nuclear field, some worry that could lead to a decline in the standard of nuclear engineering worldwide, as safety and quality - the hallmarks of the German nuclear industry - are sacrificed for faster pace and cheaper construction.

"Once German technology is replicated elsewhere, production and expertise become cheaper," says Johannes Scharrer, a project manager at Westinghouse's German subsidiary. "In China and India, they do not have the constraints of the kind of safety standards we have in Germany, and the quality of facilities will be worse."

Though in the minority among their classmates and compatriots, the young scientists at the Osnabruck colloquia hope the national debate will become less emotional and more rational.

"Maybe now that we have Chancellor Merkel, who was once a physicist, leading the government, we can have a rational and scientific debate about nuclear energy in Germany," said Christian Boggenberger, a physics student at Munich's Technical University attending the job fair.

Material from the wires was used in this report.

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