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The Precarious Life Of Energy Engineers In The United States

The Precarious Life Of Energy Engineers In The United States

Here in the United States, public officials endlessly urge young people to take up engineering as a profession. These “exhortationists” equate the future of Western civilization with the number of engineers.

But there is a problem: We do not treat engineers very nicely -- at least not those who are federal employees or contractors. The very politicians who lead in exhorting our young to become engineers are those who treat engineers as disposable workers.

The government starts many projects and finishes few. A change of administration, a shortage of money, or some other excuse and the government shelves the project.

The impact on engineers is devastating. They have often relocated their families to the site of the project and -- wham! -- it is canceled.

It is not only that this rough treatment has a huge impact on families – and engineers are not that well-paid (median income is $99,000, and petroleum engineers are the highest-paid) – but also the psychological damage is considerable. Related: Investing In Uranium? This News Will Shock You.

Engineering a new project is exciting but also demanding. Men and women throw themselves into what is a giant creative undertaking, eating up years of lives, demanding the most extreme effort. It is shattering when there is a sudden political decision to cancel a project.

To look at a bridge or a locomotive and say, “I built that,” “I made a difference,” is much of the engineer’s reward. Marc Goldsmith, a fourth-generation engineer, who has worked on 16 projects in nuclear power which have been canceled, says that many engineers get so frustrated they leave the profession and go into law or finance, and never face a logarithm again. He says the government treats highly educated engineers like day laborers: expendable.

Goldsmith, a former president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, says the heartbreak of a canceled project to the engineers is terrible and destructive of the can-do engineering culture.

The hundreds of engineers involved in a big engineering project do not do their job just for the money, but for the satisfaction that they solved a problem and made a thing that worked, whether it was a mega-passenger aircraft, a spindly skyscraper or a flood-control gate. Related: Rosneft Doubling Down To Survive Oil Price Storm

We now live in a world of project ghosts, where public policy (politics) has said “go,” and has said later, with the same passion, “abandon.”

Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, the genius founder of the Lockheed secret division of engineers, dubbed Skunk Works, in Burbank, Calif., told me before he died in 1990 that some of the starts-and-stops and abrupt cancellations of military projects made him sick. The Skunk Works, which brought us such legends as the U-2 and the SR-71, to name a few, was also instructed by the government to eradicate any trace of other projects that were far along. “Not only were they canceled, but they had to be expunged,” he told me.

Nuclear has been especially hard hit by government policy perfidy. In today’s shame roster, Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste repository and the pride of thousands of engineers, was abandoned by the incoming Obama administration in a deal with Harry Reid, the Democratic senator from Nevada and Senate majority leader. Good-bye to $15 billion in taxpayer money; good-bye to a nuclear waste option; and goodbye to all that intricate engineering inside a mountain. Related: Is This The Best Play In U.S. Oil?

Now the administration is taking its policy sledgehammer to another engineering project: one it supported until it didn’t support it anymore. It is trying to end the program to build a plant to blend surplus weapons-grade plutonium with uranium and burn it up in reactors as uranium oxide, or MOX, as it is known.

The contractor – a consortium of Chicago Bridge & Iron Company and Areva, the French firm – says the plant is 67-percent complete and employs over 300 engineers, out of a total workforce of some 1,800, at the Department of Energy site near Aiken, S.C. Now this big engineering project, which is another way of dealing with nuclear waste, is in the government’s sights.

By Llewellyn King for Oilprice.com

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  • doogie on August 23 2015 said:
    I have always thought that the cancellation of Yucca Mountain was one of the great tragedies of the modern era. Instead of a very safe repository ( and certainly every option carries some mathematically quantifiable risk in storing this stuff) we are stuck with piecemeal storage at thousands of sites each probably being riskier than Yucca. The possibility of terrorists getting their hands on some of this has got to many orders of magnitude greater than storage at a well-designed central site.

    The triumph of short-sighted grandstanding and political pandering. Very sad!
  • N6J on August 23 2015 said:
    The gummint crows and haws about the need for technological innovation, encouraging people to become engineers. Just as a project passes the halfway point, that same gummint pulls the plug and the rug out from under those engineers leaving them far and away from other projects.

    You think nuclear suffers? Read up on NASA and the space program in its early years.

    Then the gummint crows and haws about the need for H1B visas because we lack the engineering talent for projects under consideration which then justify bringing in immigrant engineers.

    And they wonder why METS are hard to sell to young people? Having a hard science degree, I recommend finance and law to any young person having the desire to become a scientist or engineer. METS are good to pursue for an undergraduate degree, but to become prosperous and gainfully employed, get that MBA or JD.

    I believe a Physicist by the name of Kaku once ranted about how the H1B visa program is or was America's "secret weapon." Secret weapon for infiltration and national destruction from within perhaps.
  • MrColdWaterOfRealityMan on August 24 2015 said:
    It's no different in private industry. To owners and upper management, engineers are no different from secretaries, janitors, security guards or plumbing equipment, for that matter. The can be purchased at whim, disposed of when needed.

    Ultimately, owners and upper management would prefer slaves. When AI gets good enough, they'll have them.

    For a while.
  • fuzzy on August 31 2015 said:
    Excerpt from 2007, the American Physical Society - Discussion Paper - Nuclear Waste Storage

    Interim Storage Report: The Federal government is liable for the costs of extended at-plant nuclear waste storage by plant operators for its failure to take title of the spent fuel starting in January 1998 as required by Federal statute. Consequently, whether or not there would be an economic benefit to developing one or more consolidated interim storage sites depends in part on the timetable for opening Yucca Mountain.

    DOE estimates that every year of delay in opening Yucca Mountain beyond the year 2017 will cost the Federal government an additional $0.5 billion per year in settlements with the utilities. The Nuclear Energy Institute recently (2007) issued a press release asserting that the “potential cost to the industry for the storage of used nuclear fuel as a result of the Federal government’s failure to meet its obligation has been estimated at more than $56 billion."

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