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Chain reaction

New attitude toward nuclear energy boosts demand for engineers

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

The most exciting development at Virginia’s engineering schools during the past two years has been the growing demand for nuclear engineers. Richard Benson, dean of engineering at Virginia Tech, says there is a noticeable “pull” for nuclear engineers as nuclear energy has regained favor among policymakers and the general public. Schools are responding.

Virginia Tech, for example, is working to re-establish a nuclear engineering graduate degree program this fall. Benson says that students are increasingly enthusiastic about the field. The number of students taking nuclear engineering coursework at Virginia Tech has grown from 43 undergraduate and 18 graduate students in 2007 to 161 undergraduate and 56 graduate students in 2009.  Many of the current graduate students, Benson says, are practicing engineers in Lynchburg and Newport News taking classes through distance learning programs.

The University of Virginia is studying a plan to create a minor in nuclear engineering, says Clarence J. Livesay, director of the school’s Center for Engineering Career Development. The program is a result of demand in state employers, including energy producers, the builders of nuclear reactors and nuclear submarines, and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. “We’re experiencing a wide range of interest in nuclear engineering,” Livesay says.

Meanwhile, Virginia Commonwealth University will graduate in December the first students from its nuclear engineering master’s track, which began in 2007.

The School of Engineering began offering an undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering last fall. “We definitely think that nuclear in Virginia has hit a critical mass,” says Russ Jamison, dean of the engineering school. He says that companies are looking specifically for mechanical and electrical engineers who also understand nuclear physics and nuclear plant design.


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