Jessica Kemp was barely a year old when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, sending the nuclear industry in the United States into a 25-year tailspin.
But as National Engineers Week celebrations take place around the country this week, Ms. Kemp, 28, a nuclear design engineer at FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse nuclear power station near Oak Harbor, understands that she is part of a profession that is in the midst of a rebirth.
"It's in the general news more. You can tell people are interested now," she said. "Over the summer, when there were demands on the grid, the subject of nuclear comes up now."
This month, DTE, parent firm of Detroit Edison, announced it will seek a license to build a nuclear plant at its Fermi nuclear complex in Monroe County, Michigan.
There has not been an application for a new commercial plant filed with the Nuclear Regulator Commission in over 30 years, mainly because of the huge costs involved and post-Three Mile Island regulations. There are 16 utilities, mostly in the South, openly talking about building more than 30 nuclear plants.
That has many young engineer students keyed up about the potential job prospects.
"It's exciting, but nobody's sure how long it will last and that's one of the things we're facing," said Arunan Nadarajah, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Toledo, where several Engineers Week activities are taking place each day this week.
"Nearly all the university nuclear engineering programs pretty much folded after Three Mile Island," he said. "The ones left you can count them on your hands."
But for universities to start up related engineering programs is not cheap, and schools will be wary of funding them unless the nuclear push is solid enough, he said.
The electric utility industry appears serious, at least for the moment, about nurturing a new generation of nuclear engineers like Ms. Kemp.
She received a chemical engineering degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 2002, and then went to the Navy's nuclear power school to get nuclear expertise.
Todd Schneider, a spokesman for FirstEnergy, said the utility hired 130 nuclear engineers in 2006 and will hire 170 this year.
"Our problem is we will have a lot of nuclear engineers retiring in the next five to 10 years," she said.
FirstEnergy is running up against keen competition for nuclear professionals. Nuclear plant operators are in demand, at companies that plan to build such plants and at regulatory bodies that want the industry to expand.
Some companies are offering
candidates signing bonuses and permanent positions before they
finish school, Mr. Schneider said.
While schools like the University of Toledo, Ohio State University, and the University of Cincinnati ponder adding a nuclear engineering accreditation, organizers of Engineers Week hope activities this week will entice young people to look at careers in engineering.
A big event will be Friday when 200 Girl Scouts will have an overnight activity at UT's College of Engineering, said Christine Smallman, chairman of the local week events.
Locally, Frederick J. Tito, a partner with the JDI Group Inc. engineering and architectural firm in Holland, was named 2007 Engineer of the Year by the Toledo chapter of the Society of Professional Engineers.
Other activities this week include an egg drop contest today, an Engineer for a Day event for high school tomorrow, a toothpick bridge competition Thursday, and a Rube Goldberg machine contest Friday.
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