Interest in nuclear engineering has risen so sharply in the past four years at McMaster University that students on Tuesday formed the first new student chapter in Canada of the American Nuclear Society in almost 10 years.

When John Luxat first started as a professor of engineering physics at the Hamilton, Ont., university in 2004, there were two or three graduate students in the field; now there are 30, he said Tuesday. Undergraduates who take nuclear engineering as an option in the final two years of a four-year degree have increased by a factor of four or five to 25 or 30, he said.

The job prospects are a strong motivator for students, Luxat said. There are opportunities in nuclear engineering because Ontario  — where about half the province's electricity is generated by nuclear stations — is looking for a contactor to build new plants.

Moreover, many engineers hired in the last big expansion of the industry, in the 1980s, are getting close to retirement, Luxat said.

The American Nuclear Society has estimated that the U.S. needs 700 nuclear engineers a year, but only 249 are expected to be available.