A new nuclear generation

Sarah Gardner Apr 26, 2007

A new nuclear generation

Sarah Gardner Apr 26, 2007


SCOTT JAGOW: April 26, 1986. Remember what happened that day? Chernobyl — the worst nuclear accident we’ve ever seen. That and Three Mile Island in ’79 created a strong opposition to nuclear power in the U.S. But a lot of people are rethinking that position, and students getting into the nuclear industry don’t really worry about Chernobyl or ’79. Sarah Gardner reports from our Sustainability Desk.

SARAH GARDNER: It’s a Friday afternoon on the campus of Oregon State University. Young people from all over the U.S. are here for the American Nuclear Society’s annual student conference.

If this were the ’80s, there might be protesters outside. But times have changed, and Idaho State nuclear engineering major Caleb Robison feels it.

CALEB ROBISON: There’s a lot more buzz about nuclear going on.

Robison says when student groups on his campus got together recently, he met some unexpected allies.

ROBISON: You wouldn’t have ever expected it because the uh, I guess I’d call ’em tree huggers, I don’t know what organization they were from, they came over and you would have thought that we were best friends. They said it was such a great idea and they supported nuclear power and they wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago. They would have been exiled from their own group for having said that.

These aspiring nuclear engineers say global warming has forced many to rethink nuclear power since it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. And they’re convinced it’s safe.

Meghan Hahn is a senior at Oregon State.

MEGHAN HAHN: I’m taking a senior design class and I was very surprised about all the safety systems that are currently in place. It was very impressive.

Of course, nuclear accidents are textbook material for these young people, not front page headlines.

Carol Berrigan works for the nuclear industry’s main trade group.

CAROL BERRIGAN: They weren’t around at the time of Three Mile Island, which I think is the most significant experience for the U.S., sort of, collective memory. So they’re really coming from a different frame of reference than the earlier generation came from.

The frame of reference for these young job seekers also includes modern-day environmentalism. They worry about nuclear waste but believe it can be disposed of safely.

Many insist it’s a political problem, not a technical one. These students hope by the time they retire, nuclear power will provide the majority of the electricity in the United States.

But even if the industry fails to achieve that kind of growth, they’re confident of their career choice. Junior Nathan Demick:

NATHAN DEMICK: I don’t worry about a job at all.

In just three years, 27 percent of workers in the nuclear industry will be eligible for retirement and the industry is desperate to replace them.

In Corvallis, Oregon, I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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