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Updated 11:00 AM October 30, 2008




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Nuclear engineering at 50 experiences renewed interest

A record number of students are enrolled in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS) as it celebrates its 50th anniversary in an age of renewed interest in nuclear power.

The popularity of the field comes at a convenient time for the industry, as earlier generations of engineers retire and the globe gears up for an expected swell of new plants. The last nuclear plant in the United States was ordered in 1979.

"Even if we didn't open any new plants, the demographics are such that we'll need more nuclear engineers than we're producing today," says Bill Martin, professor and chair of NERS.

For 2008, NERS has 120 undergraduates and 102 graduate students, with 39 new graduate students having started their studies this fall. The total is a significant jump from just 2007. Last year, 99 undergrads and 87 graduate students were enrolled in the department. In 1996 and 1997, for comparison, 26 undergraduates were enrolled.

The department has enrollment numbers from 1980 to the present. The current figures are the highest during this period of time and likely the highest since the department was established in 1958. As a result, lab and classroom space is at maximum capacity.

Martin says this upward trend is happening all over the country.

"Enrollments are based on students' perceptions of the field that they gather from the news media, from their friends and their parents," Martin says. "Ten years ago, everyone was talking about nuclear waste and now we're talking more about energy independence and advanced nuclear reactor designs as a carbon-free solution to our energy crisis."

The department at U-M has evolved along with the nuclear enterprise.

The College of Engineering first offered courses in the discipline in 1947, five years after Enrico Fermi laid the groundwork for the first nuclear reactor during his work on the Manhattan Project.

Today nuclear technology has diverse applications. It's used to kill germs in food, take medical images such as X-rays, fight cancer, detect weapons, propel spacecraft and provide energy.

Researchers at U-M are at work in all these areas. They're developing safe and efficient fuel designs, more sensitive radiation detectors for homeland security, improved approaches to storing high-level nuclear waste, and enhanced radiation therapy techniques and 3-D medical imaging systems, among many other projects.

U.S. News and World Report recently ranked U-M's graduate program in nuclear engineering No. 1 in the country. (The magazine doesn't rank undergraduate nuclear engineering programs.)

A two-day symposium to celebrate the department's 50 years is planned for Nov. 3-4 with the keynote speaker's lecture free and open to the public.

The keynote speaker is David Kay, senior research fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. His talk is titled "Rethinking the Non-proliferation Requirements for a Nuclear Renaissance." It's at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 3 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library at 1000 Beal Avenue on North Campus in Ann Arbor.

For more information, go to

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