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January 24, 2008

Nuclear engineering programs offered

Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering is taking part in the resurgence of nuclear power as one alternative to fossil fuels by offering the only nuclear engineering tracks in western Pennsylvania.

The graduate and undergraduate certificates are available through the recently established nuclear engineering program in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.

Pitt’s program offers students access to western Pennsylvania’s concentration of nuclear energy experts from companies such as Bechtel Bettis; Westinghouse Electric Co., one of the world’s largest vendors of nuclear reactor technology, and FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., which operates the Beaver Valley Power Station nuclear power plant in Shippingport. Engineers and managers from these companies helped to design the curriculum, and experts from those companies will serve as adjunct professors. Students pursuing nuclear engineering certification also will work closely with engineers at such local facilities as FirstEnergy’s Beaver Valley plant.

Nuclear engineer Larry R. Foulke is directing Pitt’s program. Among the first generation of nuclear engineers, Foulke joined Pitt’s faculty in 2006 following a 40-year career that included managing reactor safety, training and simulation programs for Westinghouse and the Bechtel Bettis naval nuclear propulsion research laboratory in West Mifflin.

Pitt’s undergraduate certificate consists of three nuclear engineering courses plus two courses from the student’s respective engineering major.

The graduate certificate, which focuses on nuclear operations and safety, requires completion of five out of nine nuclear engineering courses to be offered. The program will be developed further with grants, including a $600,000 educational grant from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. A large portion of the NRC grant will go toward developing a distance learning component.

Foulke said the rising cost of oil coupled with the political and environmental drawbacks of fossil fuels have renewed consideration of nuclear power as an independent energy source. Also behind this interest are newly certified reactor designs, federal tax credits and investment protection for plant construction, and a faster licensing process, Foulke said.

Pitt’s nuclear engineering program builds on the engineering school’s focus on energy and power research, said Don Shields, co-director of the Swanson Institute for Technical Excellence, which promotes research collaborations with industry. The institute draws on faculty from all engineering fields to design cleaner, more efficient processes for oil, coal and electric companies.

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