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Grant helps Penn State nuclear engineering program grow

Posted: Wednesday, December 04, 2002

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Jack Brenizer remembers the lean days in the nuclear industry, when one-third of university nuclear engineering programs were eliminated and more than half of the nation's on-campus research reactors closed their doors.

As the nuclear engineering program chair at Penn State University, he says his graduates today are virtually guaranteed jobs, and his research reactor was chosen to share in a $1.97 million grant that could keep it at the cutting edge of campus nuclear research.

Nuclear power is making a comeback -- at least at Penn State, where undergraduate enrollment in the program has doubled in the last three years. Nuclear engineers are in demand, and there's talk of building new nuclear power plants for the first time in decades.

''This idea of building new reactors, to a student that's a very exciting prospect,'' Brenizer said. ''And we're seeing a lot of students now who come in very excited about their prospects of being in on the renaissance of nuclear engineering.''

In a way, Penn State is an appropriate place for that renaissance to begin. The university's Breazeale Reactor Facility, part of the Radiation Science and Engineering Center, was the nation's first licensed nuclear reactor when it was brought on line in 1955 as part of President Dwight Eisenhower's ''Atoms for Peace'' program.

The construction of nuclear power plants, the development of a nuclear Navy and the emergence of nuclear sciences in the 1950s, '60s and '70s fueled tremendous job growth in the industry. The federal government helped to build small reactors on 64 college campuses -- smaller versions of their power-generating cousins -- used mostly for training and research.

''Our primary function is education,'' said Fred Sears, director of the Radiation Science and Engineering Center. ''Here, students can learn how to conduct research using radiation. And by working at the facility, they learn the mechanics and the operation of a nuclear reactor.''

But by the 1980s, when no new nuclear power plants were being built, the demand for nuclear scientists and engineers began to fade.

About 1,800 students were enrolled in undergraduate nuclear engineering programs in 1980. By the late 1990s, that number had fallen to fewer than 500. Over the same period the number of academic programs in nuclear engineering dropped by one-third, from 57 to 38.

And as student numbers shrank, so did support for expensive reactor facilities.

''Obviously, when you have less than 500 at maybe 30 institutions around the country, university administrators start to see they're dedicating all these resources to very few students,'' said John Gutteridge, director of university programs for the U.S. Department of Energy. ''A lot of these schools decided to cut their programs or close their reactors.''

At first, it was the smaller programs and reactors that were being shut down, Gutteridge said. But when Cornell Univer-sity voted in May 2001 to close its reactor and officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan talked about doing the same, DOE's Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee drew up a plan to keep existing reactors alive through a system of grants.

Penn State joined with Purdue University and the universities of Illinois and Wisconsin, sharing $1.97 million in the first year of a five-year grant. Three other regional programs were funded, a New England program led by MIT, a Southwest program led by Texas A&M University, and a West Coast program led by Oregon State University and the University of California at Davis.

With 65 juniors and seniors in nuclear engineering -- more than double the number from just three years ago -- Penn State hopes to enhance its classroom and laboratory facilities with the grant.

Gutteridge said universities participating in the program would use their grants in different ways. Wisconsin planned to develop a distance-learning course that could be delivered over the Internet; the University of New Mexico, a partner in the Southwest group, will use most of its money for undergraduate scholarships.

''We're a very small program, so being able to provide some money for three or four students per year is significant for us,'' said Bob Busch, director of the Nuclear Engineering Laboratory at New Mexico.



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