“You’re probably not going to see a lot of young people becoming nuclear engineers. And so this is a concern not only to the nuclear industry, but to the regulators because you want to make sure that you have adequate staff to ensure that these facilities operate safely,” she said.
Macfarlane emphasized the U.S. “is not in that situation.” She likened Germany’s position to that of the United States in the 1990s.
“There was definitely a concern that we didn’t have adequate folks being trained, especially in nuclear engineering departments,” Macfarlane said. She added, “That changed a lot in the 2000s with the sort of nuclear renaissance.”
Macfarlane said that resurgence has helped the U.S. forge ahead with new types of reactors. She said those reactors are smaller, and therefore could cost less than the “extra large” legacy models.
The first design certification applications for those reactors could come next year, Macfarlane said. She said the NRC has been in contact with several companies working on the reactors, some of which have had discussions with electric utilities.
Macfarlane said an Energy Department (DOE) program that splits a $452-million grant — with an industry match — with up to two firms developing such reactors would help “push them forward.”
That grant is dispersed over five years, DOE said, adding it is still reviewing applications for the program.
The reactors range between 100 megawatts and 300 megawatts of electric generating capacity. Macfarlane noted that most of those reactors would operate underground, potentially minimizing damage from a spill.
“This is certainly a very interesting area of potential growth — and we’ll see,” Macfarlane said.