Nuclear Engineering Student Group Named Top in US

The latest national success for the Department of Nuclear Engineering came recently when the American Nuclear Society (ANS) chose UT’s student chapter to receive the prestigious Samuel Glasstone Award for the best student chapter, a first for the university.

“I think this shows that we are becoming a recognized leader for what we do,” said Assistant Professor Steve Skutnik, the group’s faculty advisor. “The ANS makes its selection on the passion, influence, and activity of the groups, so to be selected is huge.”

The acknowledgement of the group—which numbers more than forty—was rewarding for the students as well, even if it came as a surprise.

Previous section president and current vice-president Jerrad Auxier said he’d constantly checked the Internet to see how the group had fared, but never saw an indication that they had been selected as the top overall group until the news appeared in the ANS newsletter.

Gregory Meinweiser, who took over as the group’s president this semester, pointed out that as nice as it is to be chosen, the real satisfaction came because it validated the group’s efforts.

“A lot of really hard work went into us getting to this point,” said Meinweiser. “They didn’t just simply pick us because we’d never been picked; they did it because the saw the things we’d done, the efforts we’d made.

“It says a lot about that and also about our department and the direction we’ve taken the last few years.”

Skutnik talked about some of the growth made in recent years—gains that have seen the department rise to become the fourth-ranked public nuclear engineering department in the country.

Collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a major factor for faculty and students alike when choosing UT, but Skutnik pointed out some of the more subtle changes that have also made a huge impact.

Having the chance to work with the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, in particular, is seen as a valuable plus, given the center’s strength in energy education.

“That’s another opportunity that can’t be overlooked,” said Skutnik. “For students, it puts them in the mindset of considering things from a number of standpoints. That, in turn, gets them to look at implications and possibilities for nuclear power that they might not have otherwise considered, and the result is seen when some of our students actually influence public policy.”

In the most notable example of that interaction, graduate students Justin Knowles and Remy DeVoe presented a case to ANS documenting how the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan—intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector—could actually produce potentially negative incentives for nuclear power plants, given the way the rules were structured.

At the ANS Annual meeting in June, Knowles and DeVoe were jointly awarded the society’s Distinguished Service Award for their work on this topic.

“It has been exciting to watch the department transform into a well-structured and competitive department,” said Auxier, who now works at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “Although this makes the curriculum more complex and the workload on the students harder, it is rewarding to have companies, national labs, and agencies seeking you out to be an employee.”

Skutnik added that having Governor’s Chair for Nuclear Materials Steve Zinkle, Governor’s Chair for Computational Nuclear Engineering Brian Wirth, Governor’s Chair for Nuclear Security Howard Hall, and a host of other faculty members has elevated UT to the level of being a leader in some of the big topics of the day.

“Energy concerns, environmental issues such as climate change, the risk of nuclear terrorism—all of those are some of the major concerns around the world today, and they just happen to be things in which this department has expertise,” said Skutnik. “The growth that we have had is nice, but we are also well positioned to be a leader moving forward.”

 

CONTACT:

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)