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Engineers designing next generation of nuclear power

When we flip on the lights in the morning, check our email, use our smart phones and power up our computers, we rarely think about the electricity that makes these things possible. And even less frequently do we think of the people who worked to provide that electricity.

Reliable electricity is something many of us take for granted, but involves the collaborative efforts of many people: operators, regulators, service workers, fuel suppliers and behind it all, the people who make it all work — engineers.

For centuries, engineers have worked to solve some of society’s greatest challenges, including building roads, designing transportation systems, managing water and sanitation systems, improving farming efficiency, making new technologies – like flight – work, improving medical treatments and developing energy technologies that are safer and more reliable than ever before.

Author and historian Richard Rhodes noted that nuclear energy was one of the most profound technological advancements of the 20th century. Today’s nuclear engineers are continuing this tradition by addressing one of the most pressing challenges we face today – meeting the energy demand of a growing population in a safe and sustainable manner.

As a society, we are shifting toward cleaner, more sustainable energy sources to help address pollution and climate change concerns, and constraints facing our natural resources. Importantly, nuclear energy is one of the few round-the-clock resources for reliably generating significant amounts of electricity without emitting greenhouse gases.

For some people, it is literally the only energy source that can do this for them.

As the nuclear energy industry works to safely power our clean-energy future, we’re also seeing a trend toward more automation and digitization.

Not only are today’s nuclear engineers working to develop the next generation of nuclear energy facilities, but they are also developing advanced technologies to help extend the lives of our existing facilities.

For example, digital instrumentation and control systems modernize older analog equipment, and help improve the safety, reliability and longevity of the current reactor fleet.

Plants around the world are beginning to use this technology, and AREVA Inc. successfully completed an installation at a U.S. nuclear energy facility. This is only the beginning of the new technologies and advancements that I expect we’ll see in the future.

In just the last few years, we’ve seen other new and innovative applications of nuclear energy technologies.

For example, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is equipped with nuclear power packs that use heat produced by the decay of plutonium-238. These packs took the place of solar panels, which powered previous Mars rovers.

While these solar panels worked, they became coated with Martian dust that blocked out the already limited sunlight, and the rovers would shut down. NASA’s engineers switched to nuclear energy to solve this problem and provide a powerful, 100 percent reliable power source for the rover.

Looking back at the contributions that nuclear engineers have made over the years, I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

To continue in the tradition of today’s nuclear engineers and those who preceded them, we need a robust and talented pool of highly skilled engineers.

As today’s students look to their future career paths, I would encourage them to take a look at engineering and the nuclear energy industry, and the opportunities these fields offer to tackle important issues and make a difference in the world around us.