In 2016, the U.S. fleet of 99 nuclear reactors generated 20 percent of the country’s electricity. While a number of reactors are scheduled to close in the next decade, nuclear power will remain an important element in the United States’ ability to reduce its greenhouse gas production. With the retirement of the baby boom generation, the nuclear power industry is facing a shortage of trained engineers needed to shut down plants, operate the remaining reactors and manage nuclear waste.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has stepped into this gap with funding that universities can use for graduate fellowships. Houston Wood, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Sean Agnew, professor of materials science and engineering, joined forces and secured a grant of $400,000 over four years, enough to provide two fellowships a year. The first graduate students to benefit from this grant arrived on Grounds in June 2017.

“The NRC is encouraging universities to create new educational opportunities in nuclear science and engineering,” Houston said. “During the 1990s, many universities, including UVA, closed their nuclear engineering programs and decommissioned their experimental research reactors. As a result there is a shortage of engineers to replace the existing workforce.”

Broad Opportunities for Graduate Research

The fellowship funding was the indirect result of an interview that Wood, an expert on the technical aspects of monitoring nuclear nonproliferation, gave for National Public Radio. Two NRC administrators, both graduates of UVA’s nuclear engineering program, heard the interview and, during a visit to UVA to promote careers in the nuclear industry, contacted Wood about the fellowship initiative.

In their proposal, Wood and Agnew, who specializes in the manufacture of low-enriched uranium alloys for such applications as research reactor fuel and medical isotopes, made the case that the University would be an ideal recipient of the grant. They stressed the large number of faculty members, especially in materials science, whose work was relevant to the nuclear industry.

“It is a big coup that we received this grant,” Agnew said. “Most of the universities that have received this award tend to have long-established nuclear engineering programs.”

The NRC defines research projects eligible for funding as anything that benefits the nuclear sector broadly. The agency requires fellowship recipients to serve six months in nuclear-related employment for each full or partial year of academic support. 

Wisher Paudel (MAE ’17), one of the students arriving this summer, will work with Wood developing computer models to analyze activities at uranium enrichment facilities. He will refine a model that uses observations from these facilities to more accurately estimate breakout time — the time it would take for them to produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear explosion. In the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, breakout time must be kept at one year or more.

The second student, Ethan Scott (MAE ’16), will work with Patrick Hopkins, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Scott will study the loss of thermal conductivity when materials used to clad nuclear reactors are exposed to radiation. In case of an accident, the sustained ability of cladding to conduct heat away from the reactor core is a critical factor in preventing a meltdown.

An Initiative That Benefits UVA Engineering as a Whole

In addition to serving a national need — training the future generation of engineers to address pressing societal challenges of our nuclear age — the NRC fellowships will help UVA Engineering meet a key goal.

“We think this grant can serve as a great recruiting tool, helping us attract exceptional graduate students,” Agnew said.

Typically, the research options of graduate students are limited to projects funded by a faculty member’s existing grants. NRC fellowship recipients have much greater latitude. “Funding from the NRC means they can work on any project we mutually agree on,” Agnew said.

This freedom also benefits faculty members. A perennial challenge for faculty members, Agnew said, is matching the number of students in their labs with their current funding. “Either you have too few students or too many,” he said. “The NRC fellowship provides a means of better aligning students and funding.”

In addition, because it is unrestricted, the fellowship serves as a way to jumpstart research in new areas. Faculty members’ dilemma is straightforward, Wood said. They need data to secure funding, but in order to secure data, they need funding. “Data the NRC fellowship-holders collect can be used as the basis of successful proposals,” Wood said.

This is particularly important as a group of UVA Engineering faculty members — including Wood, Agnew and Hopkins as well as materials science and engineering professors Elizabeth Opila and Leonid Zhigilei — develop the core expertise needed to tackle problems of interest to the NRC and groups like the U.S. Navy, which depends on nuclear propulsion. “The NRC fellowships can help us build both the research base and the relationships required to successfully build this specialty at UVA,” Hopkins said.