Brain Drain: Fears Over Nuclear Scientist Shortage

It seems like a strange thing to have a shortage of, but nuclear physicists are in short supply these days, particularly in the United States.  And that shortage is now reaching critical mass.  That is to say it’s fast approaching zero point.  With the divide in generational gaps, the age of the nuclear physicist seems to be dwindling.

Nuclear knowledge has been draining for decades now.  With the creation of other new and more exciting fields and the public perception that nuclear physics is the science of ending the world, the nuclear physicists who enter college with fresh ideas about saving the world fear that they will be shuffled away to a dank bunker somewhere in the military establishment to design more deadly bombs to kill people.

After the Cold War, nuclear experts were largely given up on in several regards.  Programs lost funding, research was halted, and the focus became more partitioned than ever.  Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, somehow fused themselves in the public eye.  But with 8 percent of the Nuclear Security Agency reaching its retirement age every year, it seems nuclear physics will need a boost in order to keep up, and maintain the current aging nuclear stockpile.

Now the Obama administration has offered a tuition based solution: train to be a nuclear physicist and receive your money back and get a cash bonus.  The new generation is not responding quickly, but the increased 13.4% Obama is budgeting for the Nuclear Security Agency in 2011 (more than $11.2 billion more than this year’s funding) it’s clear nuclear defense is on the president’s mind.  Why the sudden increase in nuclear defense budgeting?  With the proverbial doomsday clock ticking backwards to six minutes to midnight, it seems the current administration is pushing for an end to the threat of nuclear war.  But then with tensions internationally heating up it’s possible that the Obama administration is preparing for a long term revitalization of nuclear studies.

But before we get too concerned by this new interest in nuclear physics, it’s important to understand that nuclear scientists are not merely around to create newer and deadlier doomsday devices.  In addition to the contributions to the scientific field of electricity, nuclear scientists today must also help to combat the degenerative ageing of older nuclear stockpiles, to ensure the weapons are well maintained and don’t have accidents that could cost lives and contaminate land for years afterward.  There are currently 30,000 nuclear weapons within the United States.  And that’s 30,000 chances for something to go terribly wrong.  So having a well trained team of scientists to maintain these weapons is something that many are grimly supportive of regardless of their opinion of the destructive capability of such weapons.  Nuclear scientists, as much as they study how to make things explode, traditionally study the opposite at least twice as much.  And of course there are also new opinions of the importance of nuclear power in the light of slowed oil production and concerns about fuel reserves.