The nuclear engineering program at Virginia Tech has received approval from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to award masters and doctoral degrees.

"SCHEV is pleased to approve Virginia Tech's new nuclear engineering programs. These programs are an important addition to the university's and to the commonwealth's capacity to support the growing nuclear energy industry and conduct cutting edge research," said Peter Blake, director of SCHEV.

Virginia has a very strong presence in nuclear power generation. Virginia Tech's College of Engineering maintains strategic relationships with a number of nuclear-related industrial entities in Virginia, including AREVA NP Inc., Newport News Shipbuilding, Babcock and Wilcox, and Dominion Resources. The college also has long established ties with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Department of Energy.

"All have expressed support for Virginia Tech's nuclear engineering program," said Richard C. Benson,  dean of the College of Engineering and the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Chair of Engineering. "Adding nuclear engineering to the College of Engineering augments an already strong array of educational programs in the production and delivery of energy."

David Christian, chief executive officer, Dominion Generation, was present with the Virginia Tech delegation at the July Academic Affairs Committee meeting of SCHEV meeting prior to the decision to grant the university's request. Christian explained that his company, as well as other entities in Virginia and across the nation need to hire nuclear engineers who can meet the nation's present and future energy needs.

Christian noted that five reactors are under construction in the U.S. and 66 are under construction worldwide. Nuclear engineers have a role as well in the areas of physical safeguards and security, next generation designs, fuel cycle and storage optimization, and non-destructive examination methodology development.

The proposed starting date for the new degree programs is fall semester of 2013. Alireza Haghighat, professor of mechanical engineering, will direct the program.

Virginia Tech's College of Engineering revived its nuclear engineering program in 2007 and soon started offering graduate coursework that allowed a student to earn a master's of engineering degree in mechanical engineering with a nuclear certificate.

"The university's long-term vision is to create an interdisciplinary program in nuclear science and engineering, encompassing the nuclear sciences and medicine and reach across several of the Virginia Tech colleges and our medical school," said Mark McNamee, senior vice president and provost.

"We have been working towards this goal for the past several years, and we have had great success hiring new faculty members with excellent credentials in nuclear engineering education and research," Benson said.

Leading the effort in mechanical engineering are two faculty members, Mark Pierson  and Eugene Brown. Pierson was formerly on the staff of the director of naval reactors, a joint Department of Defense/Department of Energy organization founded by Admiral Hyman Rickover. He was responsible for operational and maintenance input for all SW5 naval nuclear reactors and shipboard radiological controls. In 1992 he was named executive officer, second-in-command, of the USS Indianapolis SSN 697, a fast attack submarine.

Pierson said he hopes to have Virginia Tech's program in the top five nuclear engineering programs within 10 years.

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