VCU’s nuclear engineering program celebrates 10th anniversary

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Supathorn Phongikaroon, associate professor of nuclear engineering.

Ten years ago, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering added nuclear engineering to its program offerings, bringing comprehensive nuclear engineering education to Virginia. Today, VCU is the only university in Virginia with an accredited undergraduate nuclear engineering concentration, as well as M.S. and Ph.D. programs in mechanical and nuclear engineering.

These programs are making robust intellectual contributions to the discipline while also meeting significant industry needs. The idea to create them originated when industry and academia came together to solve a problem.

“Around 2007 or so, Dominion Resources’ nuclear business unit employed a lot of people who had come in with bachelor’s degrees in engineering, but they had to leave the state to go any further into their education in nuclear engineering,” said Kerry Basehore, who was director of nuclear analysis and fuel for Dominion from 1997 to 2016. “We looked at the situation, and at the fact that the VCU School of Engineering had opened 10 years earlier, and we said, ‘Why don’t we start a night program?’”

Areva hosted VCU nuclear engineering students for tours of its Lynchburg, Va., training facilities.
Areva hosted VCU nuclear engineering students for tours of its Lynchburg, Va., training facilities.

Basehore and colleagues from Dominion met with Russell Jamison, then dean of the VCU School of Engineering, and the team formed a plan. VCU Engineering would begin by offering M.S. courses in nuclear engineering. The classes would be held in the evening, and many of them would be taught by Ph.D. nuclear engineers from Dominion. Sama Bilbao y León, who was a nuclear safety analysis engineer with Dominion in the fall of 2007, co-taught VCU’s first nuclear engineering course.

Historically, Virginia had been a pioneer in nuclear, but nuclear engineering graduates were no longer being produced in-state.

“Although we were able to recruit fantastic new hires from out-of-state nuclear engineering programs, we often lost them after a year or two when they decided to go back home,” Bilbao y León said. “We had to stop the attrition problem. In those early meetings, it was clear that both VCU and Dominion would benefit from a new nuclear engineering program. There was a huge opportunity here.”


‘It gave the program visibility’

Bilbao y León returned to VCU Engineering full time in 2011 after two appointments with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Today, she is an associate professor and director of nuclear engineering programs at VCU.

“Sama really is the perfect person to head our nuclear programs because of her vast industry and policy experience,” said Gary Tepper, who has been chair of the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering since 2009.

Tepper said adding nuclear engineering to the department’s offerings has boosted enrollment.

“In 2009, we had about 300 students,” Tepper said. “When we added the nuclear concentration, we went to nearly 600 students in a short time. It gave the program visibility and gave students options.”

The program’s progression has been steady and strategic. Two years after VCU’s first M.S. nuclear engineering courses in 2007, the department added an undergraduate nuclear engineering concentration option to the mechanical engineering bachelor’s degree. In 2010, the department’s name was officially changed to include nuclear engineering, and in 2012, the nuclear concentration received accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. In 2013, VCU enrolled the first students in its Ph.D. program in mechanical and nuclear engineering, which remains the school’s newest doctorate and the country’s only hybrid mechanical and nuclear Ph.D.

“At every level, our program is distinguished by hybridization and integration,” Tepper said. “It’s a very good partnership for our graduates as well. They can earn an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, for example, but with an ABET-accredited nuclear concentration. This gives them flexibility in how they market themselves. Feedback from companies indicates that they like that, too.”

Bilbao y León said the marriage of nuclear and mechanical engineering is also conceptually strong because the two disciplines share many foundation courses, including thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer and materials science.

She has a clear vision for the program’s next phase.

“We have five research faculty members now and would like to see that number double,” Bilbao y León said. “Our faculty and graduate students have been awarded a good number of Department of Energy research grants, and this is helping us develop in the right areas to eventually become a powerhouse. VCU has strong expertise in core areas that could make us become a go-to program in areas such as energy and environmental policy, security and nonproliferation, advanced reactor design and fuel cycle advanced technology.”


Robust research

Ph.D. candidate Hunter Andrews.
Ph.D. candidate Hunter Andrews.

VCU’s nuclear engineering program is advancing a strong research agenda. Highlights include Tepper’s study of uranyl soil extraction and fluorescence enhancement by silica gel, which resulted in a new method to allow fast and sensitive measurement of uranium in soil. Bilbao y León’s research on branding the nuclear fuel cycle offers a comprehensive approach to communicating with the public about nuclear energy and building a better understanding of the nuclear fuel cycle.

This year, Supathorn Phongikaroon, associate professor of nuclear engineering, and his team developed a method to measure and produce near real-time measurements of the elemental concentration of salts in nuclear electro-refiners using laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. This process helps ensure material accountability and safeguards of special nuclear materials.

In 2016, two Ph.D. candidates received highly competitive fellowships from the DOE’s Integrated University Program. Hunter Andrews is using his fellowship to develop a method that combines cyclic voltammetry and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy to reprocess used nuclear fuel. Daniell Tincher’s fellowship is supporting his development of a methodology that makes legacy nuclear safety codes more user friendly, enabling real-time, event-driven modeling and simulation.

The VCU Student Section of the American Nuclear Society helps fill the nuclear engineering pipeline. The goal of the student section is to present nuclear matters in a positive light. ANS at VCU looks to make a major impact on the nuclear world through scholarship and service. It accomplishes this objective through a robust speaker program featuring experts on nuclear science and technology. It also brings in speakers on policy and communications issues that relate to nuclear engineering. Student members of ANS at VCU have a strong representation at local and national conferences on nuclear science and technology. Functioning as a central hub of resources, ANS at VCU enables its members to contribute to the field through collaborative activities, group tours, conferences and weekly meetings.

VCU students also travel abroad to add to their nuclear engineering skills. Every summer, VCU’s nuclear engineering students have the opportunity to study reactor theory and operate an experimental nuclear reactor in a three-credit intensive course that Bilbao y León developed in partnership with the Technical University of Dresden, in Germany. It features the AKR-2 training reactor, Germany’s most modern research reactor. For two weeks, the students perform a variety of startup, shutdown and power maneuvers, as well as several neutron activation and isotope identification exercises. This summer will mark the third year of the study-abroad program.

VCU faculty and students, together with the faculty of the AKR-2 reactor at the Technical University of Dresden during the summer of 2016.
VCU faculty and students, together with the faculty of the AKR-2 reactor at the Technical University of Dresden during the summer of 2016.


The next chapter

VCU’s nuclear engineering alumni report that VCU’s program and its balance of theory, research, and industrial applications has prepared them for work in the industry.

Thu N. Ho earned her M.S. in mechanical and nuclear engineering from VCU in 2012. Today she works for Dominion in safety analysis.

“One of the great things about VCU was that so many professors had also worked in the field,” Ho said. “They could draw on that in class, and, as a result, I felt like I knew the industry before I got there. Dr. Ross Anderson’s nuclear safety course was a perfect grounding in what I do right now. It was directly relevant.”

Ho is one of three women on a seven-member team. She believes safety analysis is a place where engineers can be part of significant policy and strategy decisions, and she said she would like women to know that nuclear engineering is more than running power plants.

The power plant side of the operation was where 2014 alumnus Matthew Giffen’s interests lay as he started his undergraduate degree with a concentration in nuclear engineering.

“I was interested in nuclear engineering because clean, carbon-free energy is important,” he said. “VCU had the only comprehensive nuclear program in the state, and that’s what led me to transfer there from a community college.”

Giffen now works as a core design engineer for Dominion, and he agrees with Ho that one of VCU’s defining characteristics is its strong grounding in theory and application, calling the program “well tailored” to the needs of emerging professionals and researchers.

That approach also worked well for Jordan Garroway, who received a fellowship from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations’ National Academy for Nuclear Training specifically geared to M.S. students interested in a career in the nuclear industry. That fellowship allowed him to quit his job as a high school teacher and work on his master’s at VCU full time. He is now a nuclear engineer at Dominion’s Millstone plant in Waterford, Connecticut, and is training for his senior reactor operator management certification.

“VCU’s graduate classes in nuclear safety, reactor theory and power plant design — just to name a few — provided an outstanding framework for both my role as an engineer and as a trainee,” Garroway said. “The preparation was invaluable.”

VCU’s nuclear engineering program maintains its strong connection to the field through participation in organizations such as ANS and the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium. The consortium, currently chaired by Bilbao y León, is a body of stakeholder organizations tasked with enhancing Virginia’s leadership in nuclear energy. It serves as an interdisciplinary business, research, training and information resource on nuclear energy issues. VNEC members meet monthly, often at the VCU School of Engineering.

Bilbao y León and Tepper see a promising future for nuclear engineering at VCU. Given its growth, they look to build expertise in power generation, national security, nondestructive testing, radiation detection and nuclear medicine. It’s a continuation of the story that began in 2007, when industry and academia came together to build something new and necessary. They look forward to helping write — and disseminate — the next chapter.

“My goal now is to keep advancing VCU’s name among the U.S. nuclear engineering programs,” Bilbao y León said. “More and more people are starting to recognize how good our program is.”


A version of this story was first published in the January 2017 issue of Nuclear News