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Mizzou Engineering gears up to ease nuclear expertise shortage

College of Engineering Dean Jim Thompson will use a $450,000 federal grant to support nuclear education and research.

Responding to a nationwide shortage of engineers for the nuclear industry, Mizzou Engineering is launching a two-pronged program to encourage both scholarship and training in the field.

“Our goal is to build a core of individuals who are both high-impact researchers and educators so that they can effectively educate future generations of nuclear engineers,” College of Engineering Dean Jim Thompson said.

The College of Engineering has received a $450,000 grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to finance nuclear education program development and research conducted by two junior faculty members, Scott Kovaleski and Patrick Pinhero. The three-year grant will run through 2011.

Demographics and societal trends have combined to create a shortage of workers in the nuclear energy industry. Nuclear utility workers as a whole are aging—their median age is 48, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) based in Washington, D.C.—even as the power industry feels the pinch caused by a steady decline in the number of students earning nuclear engineering bachelor’s degrees following the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident.

While the number of nuclear engineering students started growing again about six years ago, nuclear work force demands have increased even more sharply. Sparked by high oil prices and carbon emission concerns, the nuclear industry has not only revived but has begun to expand. An NEI tally lists about 30 nuclear power plants in the NRC licensing pipeline, following decades of stagnation.

MU’s College of Engineering aims to supply some of the nuclear expertise required by current and planned nuclear power plant expansion.

With the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR) as a research and educational resource, the college will use the NRC grant to fund the nuclear research of Kovaleski, an electrical and computer engineering assistant professor, and Pinhero, a chemical engineering associate professor. Their work will act as “seeds for future growth” of research and students, according to Thompson.

Kovaleski’s nuclear research focuses on developing neutron-generating accelerators much smaller than current models. Already working with a graduate student on an engine for a portable nuclear materials detector, Kovaleski plans to develop an entire sensor system that would stimulate a detectable emission of nuclear materials rather than try to detect the weak natural emissions as do most existing detection systems.

Pinhero is researching both nuclear reactor materials and fuel handling. He is working to develop materials with which to build advanced reactor systems operating at very high temperatures as well as investigating ways to recycle nuclear fuel so it can be used again.

The NRC program supporting Kovaleski and Pinhero addresses shortages in nuclear engineering and radiochemistry faculty, noted Mark Prelas, a nuclear engineering professor and director of research at MU’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute (NSEI). Academic nuclear engineering programs have been losing faculty to the nuclear power industry and government organizations as well as to attrition, Prelas said.

Engineering leaders also plan to encourage students to take advantage of a nuclear engineering minor created by NSEI in 2004 and administered by chemical engineering Associate Professor Paul C. H. Chan. Some 85 percent of the engineers at a typical American utility power plant are mechanical, electrical, chemical or civil engineers, said William Miller, one of the nuclear engineering professors who also administers the nuclear engineering minor.

“You don’t need to have an entire degree in nuclear engineering to work in the industry, you just need to have some understanding of it—and that’s what the nuclear engineering minor does,” Miller said. “The bottom line is, you need a lot of nuclear-trained engineers.”

As well as highlighting the nuclear minor and offering a planned curriculum incorporating it, Pinhero and Kovaleski plan to ensure that nuclear engineering courses, developed by NSEI Professor Tushar Ghosh and Associate Professor Robert Tompson Jr., receive regular classroom time. Pinhero said he will offer new courses in reactor design, advanced reactors and the nuclear fuel cycle.

“It is the simplest of all things: ‘If we build it, they will come,’” Kovaleski said.