fuel for nuclear education
Back in 1980, the UW-Madison Department of Nuclear Engineering was among 65 U.S. university departments that offered nuclear engineering educational programs.
Today — despite a worldwide resurgence of interest in nuclear energy — less than half those educational programs still exist.
That shift began in the late 1970s, when the cost to build nuclear plants soared and energy companies scrapped plans to build them. Sensing a limited job market, fewer students pursued nuclear engineering education.
This decline became a national
issue — particularly for an industry bursting with existing nuclear power plants. “Educating nuclear engineers was expensive because of the nature of the research and need for facilities,” says Bill Naughton, manager of research and development at Exelon Nuclear. “The fundamental issue was whether the supply of nuclear engineering graduates would be adequate for the future.”
Prompted by national nuclear and energy organizations, the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council undertook a study of the trends in nuclear engineering education. The resulting report, “U.S. Nuclear Engineering Education: Status and Prospects 1990-2010,” indicated a bleak outlook.
At UW-Madison, Professor Max Carbon, founding chair of nuclear engineering — now part of the Department of Engineering Physics — presented that report, along with a plea for funding to Tom O’Connor, then-CEO of Commonwealth Edison (now Exelon). “I also proposed it in terms of not just UW-Madison, but proposed that they give grants to five major universities producing graduates from whom they hired,” says Carbon.
O’Connor liked the idea, contacted the U.S. Department of Energy, and with equal contributions from Commonwealth Edison and the DOE totaling $500,000, a unique funding program was born. Now entering its 20th year, it started as a five-year pilot program in 1991 for the “ComEd Five”: Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan and MIT.
Engineering Physics Professor and Chair Mike Corradini says the department has used the funding to award more than 200 scholarships, upgrade equipment and infrastructure in the nuclear engineering instrumentation and reactor lab, and develop web-based course modules that benefit students at UW-Madison and partners at such institutions as South Carolina State University, a Historically Black College and University institution.
“It has been an important contributor of flexible funds that help provide us with the margin of excellence in our undergraduate and master’s programs in nuclear engineering,” says Corradini about the funding program.
In the 2010-2011 academic year, Exelon’s gifts to UW-Madison surpassed the $1 million mark. “It’s been a wonderful program for us,” says Carbon. “It’s provided urgently needed money. We’re typically ranked somewhere in the top two or three nuclear engineering programs in the country and we certainly would not have been there without money like that.”
Naughton says the matching-gift program has been touted as the savior for university nuclear engineering departments. “It’s our livelihood here,” he says. “It is essential for us to have people educated in the field.”