Starting in fall 2024, Tennessee Tech University will offer a nuclear engineering major for students looking to work in the nuclear energy industry. Local contractor United Cleanup Oak Ridge (UCOR) is supporting the launch of the program, which establishes a formal talent pipeline between the two groups and aims to contribute to overall economic growth in the region.
The partnership will provide scholarships and internship opportunities and expand research, training, mentorship and education for students.
What’s the need: Nuclear engineering is a rapidly growing field, particularly in Tennessee.
Nationally, around 20 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated by 92 existing nuclear reactors in 28 states, according to data from the Nuclear Energy Institute. Tennessee provides around 5 percent of the U.S.’s nuclear energy, says Joseph C. Slater, dean of the college of engineering.
Tennessee governor Bill Lee has prioritized nuclear energy development, signing an executive order in May to create the Tennessee Nuclear Energy Advisory Council and setting aside $50 million for a Nuclear Fund in the state’s 2023–24 budget.
Over 30 years ago, Tennessee Tech offered nuclear engineering as a concentration, but public skepticism around nuclear energy reduced interest in the programs, and the university dropped the program. As public opinion has swayed to be more positive, students enrolled at Tech have also expressed an overwhelming interest in the new program, Slater says.
A university survey found if the nuclear engineering degree program was available, it would be the most popular engineering program among current students.
UCOR is contracted to lead the Oak Ridge Reservation cleanup—a U.S. Department of Energy project focused on reducing environmental risk while creating new science and national security missions at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex.
The partnership: With this partnership, students will be exposed to different types of nuclear energy jobs—like design, cleanup and utilization roles—and be career-ready, or shovel-ready, at graduation.
Students have interned at UCOR for years, Slater says, but this partnership formalizes the connection between the two groups and expands existing experiential learning opportunities.
UCOR is endowing an engineering scholarship for $25,000, which will generate around $1,200 annually for a scholarship that Slater hopes is the “tip of the iceberg” of privately endowed scholarships from local companies.
Under development: Tech announced plans for the nuclear engineering major earlier this year and will submit the program to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission after its development.
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville has one of the largest nuclear engineering programs in the nation, and Tennessee Tech hopes to augment that program in supplying Tennessee with nuclear industry workers.
Launch preparation for the nuclear engineering major involves building from the ground up, but leaning into a diverse portfolio of engineering programs. Currently officials are purchasing equipment and working with consultants. Next will come faculty hiring and, finally, attracting and enrolling students.
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