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Boosting and diversifying the nuclear workforce of the future is the goal of UNM-led Department of Energy program

June 3, 2024 - by Kim Delker

Two University of New Mexico faculty members in the Department of Nuclear Engineering are part of a Department of Energy program to boost awareness and access to nuclear careers in the Southwest.

“Democratizing Awareness and Access to Nuclear Engineering Career Opportunities in the Southwest” is being funded by the Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) of the U.S. Department of Energy. Christopher Perfetti, an associate professor of Nuclear Engineering at UNM, is the principal investigator. Collaborators on the project are Carl Willis, a lecturer in the department, and Janice Lindegard and Uchenna Ezibe, both of the American Nuclear Society.

Perfetti said the main goal of this project is to increase public awareness of careers in the nuclear engineering and nuclear sciences. As many workers in the industry retire, there is more of a demand to replace those workers, as well as a need to create opportunities for a greater diversity in the workforce and identify and implement pipelines for underrepresented groups to find homes in the nuclear industry.

“UNM is next to two world-class research national laboratories and is less than 500 miles from the largest nuclear power generating station in the United States, yet many New Mexico communities have not shared the economic benefits brought by nuclear science and engineering to New Mexico,” Perfetti said. “In fact, some of these communities have suffered disproportionate and severe health impacts from uranium mines and mills in the Southwest. This grant cannot right the wrongs of the past, but this project can help share the economic benefits and educational pathways to success from nuclear science and energy with communities in the Southwest.”

Specifically, Perfetti said the objectives will be to work with high school teachers in various rural, Tribal and economically disadvantaged areas to improve nuclear science literacy; to foster a student pipeline and outreach opportunities for these groups in high schools to obtain nuclear engineering degrees; and to enhance educational opportunities provided by UNM’s training nuclear reactor, the AGN-201M, by developing a nuclear reactor operator training curriculum with distance-learning capabilities.

“This work will have a multiplicative effect, as science teachers will bring what they learn in these workshops back to their classrooms and communities,” he said. “We even plan to construct DIY Geiger counters that teachers will keep and can use for simple radiation detection experiments following the workshop.”

Perfetti said there are also plans to create an immersive nuclear engineering summer camp to be held at UNM so that students from these communities can preview what college life is like.

“Many students at UNM are first-generation college students, and moving away from home and onto campus can be incredibly intimidating,” he said. “We hope to ease this process by giving these students a preview of college life during these summer camps – getting to do fun nuclear science experiments is a bonus!”

Perfetti said that if this project succeeds, it could be a strong start to bolstering and broadening the nuclear science and engineering career opportunities in New Mexico.

“The AGN-201M is a unique and versatile resource, as is the nuclear science and engineering expertise that exists within scientists at UNM and at nearby national laboratories,” he said. “We look forward to using these resources to help make nuclear engineering more accessible to communities across New Mexico.”