- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

RICHMOND | Virginia universities and colleges are developing or restarting nuclear-education programs, often with help from energy companies, to replenish an aging work force in anticipation of new plants to meet increasing electricity demand.

Virginia Commonwealth University started a nuclear track to its master’s of engineering program in 2007, after officials with Richmond-based energy provider Dominion approached the school with concerns about an anticipated shortage of engineers, said Russ Jamison, the school’s engineering dean.

Most of the program’s 20 students are Dominion employees taking courses taught by mechanical- and electrical-engineering professors and Dominion engineers and scientists who are “more than qualified to teach the nuclear engineering power-generation courses for us,” Mr. Jamison said.

Dominion nuclear technical specialist Dennis Bried will get his master’s degree from VCU in 2010. He then hopes to get a senior reactor operator license, so he can run a reactor.

“With these tools, the master’s and the license, you basically have the skills to do any job within the nuclear industry,” Mr. Bried said.

VCU is seeking state approval for a master’s program in mechanical and nuclear engineering and is using a grant from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop a nuclear track for its undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, Mr. Jamison said.

Dominion also has worked with other universities, including Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Purdue and Penn State. And it has collaborated with Central Virginia Community College, in Lynchburg, to help students enter nuclear apprenticeship programs.

“Nuclear is one of those areas where demand (for workers) is going to far exceed supply,” Mr. Bried said. “Different utilities are offering top dollar for knowledge and experience in a number of nuclear-related fields.”

Nationwide, enrollment in undergraduate nuclear-engineering programs increased to more than 1,900 in 2006-07, up from 470 in 1998-99. Graduate enrollment increased from 220 to more than 1,150, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

About 20 percent of the country’s electricity is generated by 104 nuclear plants, and utilities hope to increase their production, according to NEI.

The median age of an employee in the nuclear-energy field is 48. And up to 35 percent of the industry’s workers may be eligible to retire within five years.

Many nuclear plants built in the 1970s and ‘80s used technology to become more efficient in the 1990s, and increased capacity, creating a need for more workers, said Carol Berrigan, the NEI’s senior director of industry infrastructure.

Energy companies also are applying to build new plants, and the licensing process itself requires more workers. The NRC has received 17 license applications since 2007, and five reactor-design proposals have either been certified or are in the certification process.

Dominion last year got an early site permit for a new reactor at its North Anna plant in Louisa County and hopes to have it online by 2016.

Anticipating more U.S. nuclear power plant construction, French firm Areva SA will work with Northrop Grumman Corp. to build a $360 million plant in Newport News to make large reactor parts. Areva’s design has been selected for six reactors awaiting NRC approval.

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