article Spring 2024

Research, not Reactors: The challenges facing international nuclear engineers

Over 80 years after Italian immigrant Enrico Fermi built the first nuclear reactor, international nuclear engineering students face significant limitations with job options in the United States.

Hailing from Guadalajara, Mexico, sophomore Gerson Esquivel is an undergraduate international student in UW-Madison’s nuclear engineering program. Like many international students, he overcame the challenge of living in a new country. But in his discipline, he faces an extra hurdle: nuclear security clearances — more specifically, his inability to get one.

Because he cannot get clearance, Esquivel deals with barriers and obstacles foreign to his American classmates. Among these are an inability to work on reactors in power plants or to even tour those facilities. Though his studies at UW-Madison haven’t suffered, Esquivel feels his career options are severely limited by security regulations and his lack of United States citizenship.

With practical reactor work hidden behind security barriers, many students choose to work on research and development for the greater freedom it offers. Assistant nuclear engineering professor Yongfeng Zhang, himself a foreign national, explains that security laws rarely inhibit his research.

“In the field I’m in, I don’t feel that’s a huge concern,” explains Zhang. But practical reactor work is another matter.

While only thirty-one percent of nuclear engineering master’s students in the United States are international, that number rises to fifty-six percent for research-focused PhD degrees, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. This disparity shows a concentration of international talent in research positions – and a correlated lack of foreign nationals working in practical jobs.

The team that constructed Chicago-pile. Fermi is in the front of the left, and Szilard is in the middle on the right. Photo provided by government archives

For those who hope to work on a reactor, this limitation on their future can be stifling. “[The question is] more about what can I do than what would I like to do,” Esquivel laments. “If they won’t let me tour [the reactor], do you think they’ll let me work there?”

The policy of barring foreign nationals from reactors forgets the history of the discipline. The world’s first nuclear reactor was built in Chicago in 1942, the brainchild of Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. Both famous Manhattan Project scientists, neither were American citizens when their reactor first awakened.

Facing security barriers in the United States and unwilling to let the lengthy naturalization process stall their career, many nuclear engineering students take their talents elsewhere. With limited opportunities available in Mexico, Esquivel has begun looking to Europe for his future.

The result of this alienation is the nuclear industry losing more and more international students – many of whom would have been happy to stay in the United States – to other countries. Statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor show that almost a quarter of young nuclear engineers either quit the industry entirely or take their skills to other nations.

In an era where renewable energy concerns are pushing the nuclear industry to new heights, this depletion of diverse and brilliant minds could undermine future development in America.

“We’re capable of bringing different things to the table,” Esquivel declares. But at present, only cleared American citizens are allowed to sit there.

“If they won’t let me tour [the reactor], do you think they’ll let me work there?”

Gerson Esquivel

For a field as globally relevant as nuclear physics, it’s sensible to be adamant about security – a matter on which Esquivel agrees. At the same time, blocking diverse perspectives on nuclear reactors is an undeniable loss for the future of nuclear energy in the United States.

Despite these difficulties, international nuclear engineers remain undeterred. Esquivel, though frustrated by the barriers he faces, remains diligent in pursuing reactor work. Meanwhile, after a stint working for the Idaho National Lab, Zhang now advises the next generation of nuclear engineers. He encourages students to talk to their advisors and professors if they have concerns about their futures.

“We’re willing to listen and to help,” Zhang declares.

Opportunities at reactor plants may be limited, but the university offers many resources to help nuclear engineers of all nationalities pursue the career of their choice and thrive.

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