Virginia Tech brings back nuclear engineering

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by Heather B. Hayes

Thanks to global warming and changing views of nuclear power, Virginia Tech has dusted off its nuclear engineering program. The school ceased teaching the subject when student enrollment waned after the reactor meltdown at Three-Mile Island in 1979.

“Since then, the nuclear industry has evolved to the point that it is now the most reliable and safest form of electricity generation,” says Mark Pierson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech who has helped re-establish the program. “And that’s with the old plants. The industry is now looking to build new plants that will be an order of magnitude safer.”

The College of Engineering revived its program this fall with a few undergraduate and graduate courses in nuclear engineering. With almost no advertising, the courses drew 40 undergraduate and 20 graduate students.

Virginia Tech will begin offering a three-course nuclear certificate at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the fall to students studying mechanical engineering. In time, electrical engineers, systems engineers and physics majors will be able to add a nuclear certificate to their resumes as well.

In the long-term, officials are planning to offer a master’s degree and a doctorate in nuclear engineering, along with an undergraduate minor program. “It’s going to be a permanent program for us,” says Pierson.

Nuclear engineering courses now are being offered via distance learning in Lynchburg, Pierson notes, and will be available in the fall at Virginia Tech campuses in Richmond, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

Utilities are behind much of the push for more nuclear engineering education. Virginia Commonwealth University worked with Dominion Virginia Power to offer a master’s degree track in nuclear engineering. Virginia Tech initially got a push from Lynchburg-based Areva NP Inc., a company that designs, builds, maintains and repairs nuclear facilities. The company plans to hire an additional 1,000 engineers nationally over the next five years.

“Companies are ramping up to hire engineers to help design and build these new nuclear plants,” says Pierson

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