Nuclear engineering academia reinventing itself to meet future needs, Hassan testifies

Photo of Dr. Yassin HassanOn Wednesday, February 27, a briefing was given to the members of the Nuclear Energy Institute on Capitol Hill.

Yassin Hassan, head of the nuclear engineering department at Texas A&M, was invited to give testimony during the briefing, which focused on "the university departments as a center of excellence for economic development, highlighting new initiatives that educate for specific fields, training workers, public and private partnerships and diversity."

Traditional degree-granting nuclear engineering departments have been broadening the scope of their academic programs to respond to the needs of the nuclear industry as well as to specialized government priorities and a wider range of students, said a group of academic department heads at the Washington, D.C. event.

Dan Cole, from the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Energy and Nuclear Engineering Program, said that the significant growth in worldwide demand for energy has led to a need for diversification of energy sources and consequently to a "newly educated workforce" that will have an awareness of the strong inter-connections between energy, the environment and economics.

He said the center offers not only the traditional nuclear engineering curriculum but a wider range of coursework leading to undergraduate and graduate certificate programs in electric power and mining. It provides students with grounding in fields such as carbon management, energy conversion and natural gas.

Pitt's nuclear engineering program has been enhanced in response to feedback from the nuclear energy industry to include integrated nuclear plant operations, and the department uses adjunct faculty from nearby research establishments such as Westinghouse, Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory and the Beaver Valley nuclear energy facility. In addition, Cole said, almost all of the department's courses are available via online "distance learning."

Hassan said the nuclear industry's greatest need is for "significant numbers of well-prepared technical staff," which is requiring universities to expand their academic programs beyond four-year and graduate degrees.

The Nuclear Power Institute, a part of Texas A&M's nuclear engineering department, is collaborating with the industry to identify and respond to these needs. Hassan said the institute is creating new programs at the baccalaureate level focusing on nuclear knowledge for engineering students in other fields. It also is establishing new degrees at two-year community and technical colleges to train new nuclear power plant technicians.

Hassan said the institute has several other initiatives in progress, such as work-study programs, an aggressive outreach to minority and disadvantaged students, and programs to encourage girls as well as boys at the high-school level to develop an early interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Von Bibber described his other role as executive director of the university's Nuclear Science and Security Consortium. The NSSC was established in 2011 after Berkeley won a $25 million, five-year grant from the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. The consortium of seven universities and four national laboratories has been training advanced students in a broad spectrum of nuclear fields for recruitment into national lab and federal jobs.

Although the NSSC's specific recruitment goal was for the government's national security and nuclear nonproliferation programs, von Bibber said the consortium has been responsive to current students' view of nuclear issues as "a societally important problem worthy of their careers."

"Nuclear engineering regularly reinvents itself, assuring its relevance, vitality and appeal to top young talent," von Bibber said. "We are off to a good start."