Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Media Relations (news@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations


Nuclear engineering program prepares future researchers

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., June 18, 2009 — An Oak Ridge National Laboratory program for nuclear engineering students is helping provide the workforce to produce carbon-free nuclear power for the future.

Students like Nikki Sheppard, a senior at North Carolina State, are taking advantage of the Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis program, which has grown from two to 50 students since 2002.

"I chose to study nuclear engineering at Oak Ridge because of its focus on research," Sheppard said. "Also, ORNL exposes you to a variety of opportunities compared to another internship I participated in where there was little diversity."

Bernadette Kirk, Nuclear Science and Technology Division, and Hamilton Hunter, Computational Sciences and Engineering Division, initiated the program seven years ago to help boost the declining number of students in nuclear engineering programs.

"The NESLS program aims to bring in student interns so they can get some research experience," Kirk said. "As nuclear engineers begin to retire, we want and need to fill those empty spots with a new generation of qualified professionals."

Kirk said some energy analysts expect an increase in U.S. nuclear power generation, creating good job prospects for students graduating with a nuclear engineering degree. Industry estimates cite about 8,000 nuclear engineers currently working at the 104 U.S. nuclear power plants. Doubling the number of reactors to 200 by 2050 would require 21,500 engineers with nuclear training.

Even without that many new plants being built, the aging nuclear energy workforce will soon retire, leaving job openings for incoming nuclear engineers, Kirk said. Although new plants aren't under construction in the U.S., several licenses are being renewed.

Julie Ezold, also of the Nuclear Science and Technology Division and an NESLS mentor, said the intern program plays a significant role in training tomorrow's nuclear engineers. Last year, ORNL hired four nuclear engineers who had participated in the program.

"Nuclear power has to be part of the mix," Ezold said. "Currently, U.S. nuclear power plants make up 20 percent of the electrical capacity. We want our interns to actually work on research projects that could advance this significant portion of the energy sector."

UT-Battelle manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the Department of Energy.