Careers in Nuclear Engineering Technology Attractive for Today’s Students

Nuclear Engineering Technology (NET) adjunct instructor Saundra Weikel and 2011 graduate Arianne Masten study the Chart of Nuclides in the College’s Nuclear Engineering laboratory. Photo by John Welsh

Two days after the earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear crisis in Japan, Montgomery County Community College’s Nuclear Engineering Technology (NET) students examined the real-world case study developing before them.

“In our first NET class of the day, we collectively eased our fears by doing what we do best.  We discussed the sequence of events and noticed that the ESBWR & AP1000 Reactors that we already had discussed in our presentations earlier in this semester are the Next Generation III+ Designs that do not need the active components wiped out by the tsunami,” explained NET adjunct instructor Saundra Weikel.

Weikel, who spent much of her career working as a nuclear engineer at the Limerick Generating Station, oversees the lab components of the College’s Nuclear Engineering Technology program. First introduced in 2009 as a two-way video collaboration with Lakeland Community College in Ohio, NET lectures and labs are now 100 percent on site at the College’s Central Campus in Blue Bell.

The NET program was launched in direct response to an anticipated shortage of nuclear technicians in the region over the next five years.

“At the time we started the program, Exelon anticipated the retirement of more than 200 operators over the next several years,” said H. Thomas Tucker, Assistant Professor of Engineering and NET Coordinator. “Even though the economic recession may have prompted some operators to postpone retirement, the fact remains that few operators are under the age of 50. There is no one in the pipeline.”

Those statistics, coupled with the U.S. Department of Energy’s estimate of a 20 percent increase in the use electricity by 2030, make the Nuclear Engineering industry an attractive option for today’s students.

It is the lack of training programs – rather than safety concerns – that have deterred individuals from careers as nuclear technicians. In the past, technicians were trained on the job, arriving at the plant with only a high school diploma or experience in the armed forces. However, according to Tucker, today those jobs require an associate’s degree.

“These are the people who operate the plant, who make the critical decisions. It’s important work,” said Tucker. “Today’s nuclear technicians are expected to enter the field with the knowledge of physics, chemistry and nuclear engineering, all of which they can obtain through an associate’s degree program.”

For Arianne Masten, of Lansdale, the NET program is a building block for her future career as an electrical engineer. Masten first enrolled at the College as an Engineering Science major, but when the NET program was introduced, she changed her focus. In May, she became the program’s first graduate, earning an Associate in Applied Science degree in Nuclear Engineering Technology.

Masten still plans to pursue a four-year degree, but she’ll work as a nuclear operator on the way to her goal.

“Exelon has great job placement and tuition assistance,” said Masten, who interned last summer at Exelon’s Oyster Creek facility in Forked River, N.J.

Masten was able to complete the NET program quickly, thanks to the STEM Scholars Program, which enabled her to be a full-time student. The program offers full-tuition scholarships for academically talented and financially eligible students majoring in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and related disciplines.

In addition to a full scholarship that includes books and fees, Tucker points out another incentive that students have for entering the NET program: job security and pay.

“In this economy, there aren’t many industries that are hiring, and that will continue to be hiring for quite some time,” he said. “Also, there aren’t many degree programs — associate’s or bachelor’s – where a graduate can start at $70,000, and that’s without overtime.

For more information about the NET or STEM Scholars programs, visit http://www.mc3.edu/academics.

Nuclear Engineering Technology is one of more than 85 programs students can complete at MCCC’s Central Campus, 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell. Registration is going on now for the fall semester, which begins on Aug. 31 and runs through Dec. 20.

New students can learn about the admissions and registration processes by visiting www.mc3.edu/admissions or by calling 610-718-1800 (West Campus) or 215-641-6300 (Central Campus).

Returning students can register for classes online via WebAdvisor, by mail or in person at the College’s campuses.  For more information, visit www.mc3.edu/admissions/registration.

~by Alana J. Mauger

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