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New Programs Explore Concepts in Nuclear Energy

FullTextImage/img/@altJacob Tharp, who completed a summer undergraduate research project at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains VCU’s nuclear reactor simulator. – VMI Photo by John Robertson IV.

 LEXINGTON, Va., Sept. 8, 2011 – Two academic departments at VMI now offer a concentration in nuclear energy.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering led the way, graduating its first majors with the concentration at the end of the 2009-10 academic year.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy has begun offering coursework toward its nuclear energy concentration this semester, with its first graduates mostly likely in the Class of 2015.

Mechanical engineering majors seeking the concentration must complete the mechanical engineering curriculum and select two additional upper-level classes from the following three: ME 431 Power Plant Design, PY 344 Nuclear Physics, and PY453 Nuclear Reactor Engineering. Three other courses, ME 311 Thermodynamics I, ME 313 Thermodynamics II, and ME 314 Fluid Dynamics or CE 309 Fluid Mechanics are also required, but are part of the ME major curriculum.

Five courses are required for physics majors seeking that department’s nuclear energy concentration: ME 311 Thermodynamics I, ME 314 Fluid Mechanics, ME 336 Heat and Mass Transfer, PY 344 Nuclear Physics and either PY 453 Nuclear Reactor Engineering or ME 431 Power Plant Design. All physics majors take a two-semester Modern Physics sequence, said Col. John Thompson, professor and head of the physics department. That sequence establishes the basic principles on which nuclear engineering is founded.

Engineers and physicists, said Thompson, both acquire a good technical background. “The courses are different, but the basic skill sets are pretty similar,” he said.

Capt. Bob McMasters, professor of mechanical engineering who teaches the Power Plant Design course, notes that though career paths of mechanical engineers and physicists with the nuclear energy concentration are similar, physicists might be more likely to be employed in reactor design and mechanical engineers by operational plants.

In adding the concentration, both departments seem to be riding a trend.

“I think part of it is because of the nuclear renaissance, … the renewed interest in nuclear power in our country,” said McMasters.

“Nuclear energy is not green, but it is carbon free; you don’t generate CO2 … greenhouse gases,” said Thompson. “The big thing about nuclear, coal, and petroleum is the energy density. You’ve got 7 billion people on the face of the planet, and they’d all like to live like Americans. That requires a great deal of energy. You can’t supply that energy through renewables.”

The fuel value of a single uranium pellet less than an inch long is equivalent to that of a ton of coal, said McMasters. “There’s just a lot of energy waiting to be released.”

And, said Thompson, “aside from the issue of growth, there’s opportunity [for employment] because of the ‘graying’ of the staff.”

“Since it has been looked upon as a dying industry since [the Three Mile Island accident in] 1979, there have been fewer and fewer new people going into it,” said McMasters. “Very few of the plants have closed, and the people who work there are retiring. … They’re desperately looking for ways to fill that coming void.”

Demand is also felt in both VMI departments from cadets interested in commissioning into the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power program. Bonuses await cadets who choose to operate the nuclear reactor plants on Navy submarines and aircraft carriers, said McMasters, himself a former “Navy nuc.”

“We’ve had a fair amount of interest” in the concentration, said McMasters, who has taken his students on tours of Dominion’s North Anna nuclear power plant in Louisa County, Va., cadets who in some cases have ended up employed by the plant after graduation.

Thompson said the concentration in the physics department emphasizes the “applied” aspect of the physics major.

“Sometimes people associate applied things exclusively with engineering,” said Thompson, and assume physics is a purely theoretical field. “That’s not really valid. Our program itself is very applied and very hands-on,” he said, in terms of both lab work and faculty areas of interest.

“Physicists do a lot of different things,” concluded Thompson – not just work in national labs or at NASA. And now, at VMI, they’ll be able to formalize the interest which has caused the Nuclear Reactor Engineering elective to fill consistently into a concentration on their majors.

– By Sherri Tombarge