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 FEATURES

+ By Corinna Wu

Powering On
South Korea bets the time is right for a nuclear-only graduate school.

Japan, struggling to recover from March’s triple disaster of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear-plant meltdown, has seen mass demonstrations against nuclear power. Germany, where antinuclear sentiment was intensified by the Fukushima crisis, intends to retire its own reactors by 2022. But at a nuclear complex overlooking the East Sea in Busan, South Korea, a different lesson has been absorbed: the need for more advanced training of nuclear plant operators. And so by March, 2012, the Kori Nuclear Complex will not only be a major supplier of electricity, with five operating reactors, three under construction, and four more planned; it also will be a working campus.

Kori is the home of the Korea Electric Power Co.’s new International Nuclear Graduate School (K-INGS), currently selecting its first class of 100 students — 50 from Korea and 50 from other countries. The school, developed in collaboration with George Mason University in Virginia, is designed to train engineers in the skills needed to run nuclear power plants. “The importance of K-INGS has been enhanced after the Fukushima accident,” says KunMo Chung, chairman of the new graduate school’s founding commission. “K-INGS became a timely project in training top nuclear professionals to upgrade the safety, security, and supply of nuclear power generation.” It will not offer a traditional nuclear engineering program, he says: “We are really talking about nuclear power plant engineering. When you try to plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain an energy power plant, you need all kinds of engineers and managers. It’s not nuclear engineering alone.”

South Korea is not alone in refusing to surrender its nuclear-power capacity in the face of global fright over Fukushima. The world’s steadily growing appetite for energy continues unabated, and nuclear power retains the dual advantages of being a homegrown energy source – resistant to the swings of global energy markets – and of not spewing out carbon dioxide and contributing to global climate change. France plans to build its 60th nuclear plant, and hopes to cash in on decades of atomic experience to sell its advanced technology – designed to post-Fukushima safety standards – in countries such as India, China, Britain, Poland, South Africa, Turkey, and Brazil, its energy minister, Eric Besson, recently told Reuters. Britain’s government has identified eight potential sites for reactors. Even Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, sounds prepared to withstand public anger and fear, and cling to nuclear power for a portion of his country’s energy. Altogether, some 70 nations are interested in building new nuclear power plants, says Chung, and will need engineers who can operate them. Also, old reactors are reaching the stage where they need to be upgraded.

 

A Growth Market

The persistent demand for nuclear power, coupled with mounting concern about safety, has exposed a dearth of advanced training programs in the increasingly complex skills required. During the three-decade hiatus in nuclear plant construction in the United States following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, many universities phased out their nuclear engineering programs or merged them into other programs.

Now demand for trained personnel is expected to rise. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute’s 2010 Work Force Report, nearly 38 percent of workers in the U.S. nuclear industry will be eligible to retire within the next five years. To maintain the current workforce, the industry will need to hire approximately 25,000 more workers by 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 11 percent employment growth for nuclear engineers through 2018.

The nuclear industry needs workers across the spectrum, from skilled technicians and operators all the way to nuclear CEOs, says Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and now associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas system. “I think it’s very important to have a very skilled workforce because nuclear is one of those energy forms that is just different,” adds Klein, a member of K-INGS’s International Advisory Board. “It’s very important that we do it right, we do it safe, and we do it secure.” Fellow adviser Roger Stough, George Mason’s vice president for research and economic development, says “huge questions” about nuclear plant safety compound the importance of education.

South Korea’s needs are particularly acute. Although many countries halted nuclear-plant construction in the 1980s, Korea kept building. “We didn’t have any other choice,” Chung says. “The oil price went up. We need energy, and we don’t have any natural resources in our country.” The country currently operates 20 reactors, but is building eight more. An additional 10 reactors are being planned, Chung says, making it the world’s most active reactor-building nation. Trained personnel are needed not only to run the existing plants but also to operate new ones that are coming online. South Korea, like France, plans to export nuclear plants, generating demand abroad for skilled operators.

Graduate-level nuclear studies generally prepare students for research and academic careers, not jobs operating nuclear plants. For those, the U.S. nuclear industry usually hires college graduates and gives them a lot of in-house, on-the-job training with help from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an industry-established nonprofit based in Atlanta, and the National Nuclear Accrediting Board.

K-INGS aims for a more formal and detailed approach, one that Klein, a member of K-INGS’s International Advisory Board, likens to the lengthy process the military uses to prepare candidates for the senior ranks. “I think at the top levels of the nuclear industry, they need to have the same kind of program. So the industry needs to develop a comprehensive, integrated program as they develop their leaders worldwide.”

K-INGS’s location at a nuclear power plant enables what Klein calls a “really unique” experience, in which students will prepare full time for either a master’s of engineering or a Doctorate of Technology. “In our case, we call it Doctor of Technology to signify the professional aspect of this training,” Chung says. “This is not a traditional doctoral degree program.” Instead of having students write a dissertation on original science research, K-INGS students will focus on systems engineering design and technological innovations.

Officers of the UC-Berkeley chapter of Out in STEM (oSTEM) from left to right: Paul Zarate, Mahana Barbadillo, Christopher Anderson, Jeffrey Yunes, Noel Pacheco, Jamie Cair, Casey Lawler.
ABOVE LEFT: Artist’s rendition of the KEPCO International Nuclear Graduate School, located in the KORI Nuclear Power Plant Complex. RIGHT: (Far left) KunMo Chung and (far right) Dale Klein. BOTTOM RIGHT: Last stage of construction on K-INGS campus

 

It’s All About Systems

Students will enter having majored in a variety of engineering disciplines, including systems, mechanical, electronics, electrical, and materials engineering, as well as nuclear engineering. Their curriculum is organized around all the systems – 60 in all – that go into running a nuclear plant. These systems, such as cooling or emergency preparedness, are broken down into modules and then subdivided into units. “It’s an experiment — but a very exciting experiment,” says Chung. “It’s not just ivory tower.”

The 50 Koreans in the first class will spend six weeks in the summer at George Mason taking three 40-hour courses in systems engineering. Although the school doesn’t have a nuclear program, “I think we found a niche” with systems engineering, Stough says. Outside class, students will visit the NRC and nuclear operating facilities, meet with officials in government and the nuclear power industry, and “learn more about the global regulatory framework.” Incoming international students – including 10 from the United Arab Emirates, which currently has no nuclear power plants but plans to build four reactors – will be spending the same period in South Korea, getting to know the country and its culture. All classes, both in Korea and Virginia, will be conducted in English, “the international language of business,” according to Stough.

The connection between K-INGS and George Mason, which has been expanding ties with East Asia, began when Chung was a visiting scholar at the Fairfax, Va., school during the 2008-9 school year. K-INGS plans faculty exchanges with a consortium that includes George Mason, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Liberty University.

What distinguishes K-INGS from a typical academic program, says Klein, is “that practical, hands-on, very detailed understanding of how the technology works and how to maintain it in a safe, secure manner. I think it’s a very creative program, it’s international, and it’s interdisciplinary.” And it’s in demand to the point where nuclear power companies, including KEPCO, are expected to cover the cost of students’ tuition. If his “experiment” succeeds, Chung envisions a similar nuclear graduate school springing up in the United States.

 

Corinna Wu is a writer-editor based in Oakland, Calif., who specializes in science.

 



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