Swanson School Launches Region’s Only Nuclear Engineering Program

Issue Date: 
January 7, 2008

As the global thirst for energy outpaces the ready supply, the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering is taking part in the resurgence of nuclear power as one alternative to fossil fuels.

Pitt Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor James V. Maher recently approved graduate and undergraduate certificates in nuclear engineering—the only nuclear engineering tracks in Western Pennsylvania. The certificates are available through the Swanson School’s recently established nuclear engineering program, part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.

Pitt’s program is unique in its offering students access to Western Pennsylvania’s distinct concentration of nuclear energy experts from companies such as Bechtel Bettis, Inc.; Westinghouse Electric Company, one of the world’s largest vendors of nuclear reactor technology; and FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company, which operates the Beaver Valley Power Station nuclear power plant in Shippingport. An advisory committee of engineers and managers from these three companies took part in designing the curriculum to ensure that students learn the most relevant and up-to-date information, and experts from those companies also serve as adjunct professors. Students pursuing nuclear engineering certification also work closely with engineers at such local facilities as FirstEnergy’s Beaver Valley Plant.

lrf.jpgNoted nuclear engineer Larry R. Foulke, shown at right, directs Pitt’s program and serves as a professor. Among the first generation of nuclear engineers, Foulke joined Pitt’s faculty in 2006 following a 40-year career that included managing reactor safety, training, and simulation programs for Westinghouse and the Bechtel Bettis naval nuclear propulsion research laboratory in West Mifflin. He is a past president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and, as current chair of the ANS Public Policy Committee, regularly meets with members of Congress about matters pertaining to nuclear science and energy.

The Pitt program was specifically designed to give students the education that today’s companies and facilities want their nuclear engineers to have, Foulke said. “It’s natural for Pitt to offer a nuclear engineering education—we’re surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of nuclear engineering experts in the world,” he said. “Our nuclear engineering program is driven by the workforce needs of these facilities. We asked them what knowledge our graduates should have, then designed our courses.”

The undergraduate certificate consists of three nuclear engineering courses plus two approved courses from the student’s respective engineering major. Foulke began teaching the first undergraduate course in Fall 2006 and will complete the third this month. The certificate’s approval is retroactive, meaning that students who have completed all five required courses by the end of the current semester will be the first group to receive undergraduate certificates in nuclear engineering from Pitt. The more intensive graduate certificate, which focuses on nuclear operations and safety, began in August and requires the completion of five out of nine nuclear engineering courses to be offered.

The program will be further developed with the help of grants, including a $600,000 educational grant awarded in August by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. A large portion of the NRC grant will go toward developing a distance learning component for teaching students across Pennsylvania and offering further education to nuclear engineers already in the workplace.

Pitt has launched the nuclear program during a growing buzz of activity in nuclear energy, but also amid a shortage of nuclear engineers, Foulke said. Public apprehension following incidents such as the partial reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg in 1979 and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine stunted domestic nuclear power development and education for decades.

Recently, the rising cost of oil and the political and environmental drawbacks of fossil fuels have renewed consideration of nuclear power as a clean, safe, and independent energy source. Also behind this interest are newly certified reactor designs, federal tax credits and investment protection for plant construction, and a faster licensing process, Foulke said. In anticipation of a “nuclear renaissance,” he said, the NRC is compiling resources to review up to 30 new license applications for plant operation and construction, and nuclear power-related industries are expanding their operations and workforces.

The nuclear engineering program builds on the Swanson School’s focus on energy and power research, said Don Shields, codirector of the Swanson Institute for Technical Excellence, which promotes research collaborations with industry and advances the economic capability of companies in Western Pennsylvania. The Swanson Institute draws on faculty from all engineering fields to design cleaner, more efficient processes for oil, coal, and electric companies. Pending projects in the nuclear realm include safer reactor designs and monitoring the way nuclear reactor construction materials perform over the lifetime of these facilities.

Furthermore, the Swanson School’s Mascaro Sustainability Initiative (MSI) specializes in efficient and environmentally sound design that reduces the need for man-made electricity by incorporating natural sources of energy such as sunlight and radio waves. For one project, MSI students and professors are working with the town of Vandergrift in Westmoreland County to harness the Kiskiminetas River and power the main business district with free, clean-source electricity using microhydro generators.

For more information, visit the Web site for the undergraduate certificate at www.engr.pitt.edu/mems/undergraduate/nuclear-certificate.html, or for the
graduate certificate at www.engr.pitt.edu/mems/graduate/nuclear-certificate.html.