Nuclear engineering gets a boost

Nuclear energy is not dead, that is the message being given out by the US Department of Energy, which has just invested $10 million in university research and training reactors.

The near and long term future of nuclear research and training reactors at US universities received a boost recently when the US Department of Energy awarded a consortium of four Big Ten universities nearly $2 million a year for the next five years.

The four universities that make up the Big Ten consortium are Penn State, Purdue University, University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin, all universities with strong nuclear engineering undergraduate and graduate education programs. The lead university in the consortium is Penn State.

‘While the common perception is that nuclear energy is dead, in truth, it is far from dead,’ said Dr. Jack Brenizer, professor and program chair of nuclear engineering at Penn State. ‘The perception that nothing is going on is incorrect. This year we have a class of 28 juniors and the supply of students is well below the job demand for new graduates.’

One program goal is to design the next generation of university research and training reactors, but that is only one of four goals for the program.

‘First we need to buy equipment and make changes to enhance what is being done now at our reactors,’ said Brenizer. ‘For example, Penn State’s reactor is state of the art, having had a variety of enhancements and upgrades over the years, but the classrooms we use to do outreach education for public school teachers, students and others are not. Wisconsin’s laboratories need to be upgraded and Purdue needs to make improvements to their public outreach tours and other programs.’

The next goal tackled will be near-term improvements and upgrades in design and equipment. For the third goal, the four universities will work together on a long term vision of what the advanced research reactor should be, using a variety of approaches including virtual reactors and computer simulations. Finally, to fulfil the fourth goal, the consortium will design the next generation of nuclear research facilities.

The four universities will share in the $1.97 million awarded for this year by the DOE with a portion of the funding earmarked for Consortium-led mini-grants. These would enable researchers in other fields who typically find the cost of using nuclear research facilities exceed their budgets, to use the services of the reactor facilities for nuclear analysis techniques.