Physics department to develop nuclear science program for graduate students

Media Credit: Arielle Bader | Assistant Photo Editor

Andrei Afanasev, the director of the project and an associate professor of theoretical physics, said faculty are working to form a Nuclear Education Hub.

Faculty in the physics department will receive funding from the Department of Energy to develop new nuclear science and engineering programming for international students.

Faculty said they are working to form a Nuclear Education Hub that will teach aspects of operating nuclear reactors to graduate students in a partnership with Virginia Tech. The efforts, which faculty aim to complete this fall, will focus on recruiting Ukrainian graduate students by offering them the opportunity to learn about nuclear physics unconstrained by outdated Russian safety standards for nuclear power plants, the standards most Ukrainian plants were built on.

Andrei Afanasev, the director of the project and an associate professor of theoretical physics, said faculty are primarily designing the program for Ukrainian students because Ukraine relies on nuclear power plants to generate electricity and because American nuclear companies have shown increasing interest in Ukraine’s nuclear operations.

He said faculty plan to fully develop curricula about the methods that American and international communities use to produce nuclear energy by the upcoming fall semester and give students the opportunity to research nuclear reactors at local laboratories.

“The way that I see it is that we are helping this international cooperation and partnership to move forward and providing our expertise and experience in this area,” Afanasev said.

He said that the idea for the partnership formed in 2015 when a delegation from the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences visited D.C. He said the group singled out GW and Virginia Tech for a collaboration in nuclear research and education aimed toward Ukrainian students because of the schools’ existing nuclear education programs.

Afanasev said the physics department received funding for the project after sending a letter to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and receiving a response from a deputy assistant secretary of energy, who invited members of the department to discuss the idea at the Department of Energy. He said the collaboration took a few years to develop because of ongoing discussions.

“There we presented our plan to move forward, this alliance of universities and local labs,” he said.

Afanasev said the program will encourage students from all countries to join, but the program’s leaders may provide scholarships to students from Ukraine this year – and other countries that generate nuclear power, like India, in the future – to attract more international students.

He added that American and Ukrainian researchers and faculty will hold a conference at GW in June to discuss how to better train the next generation of nuclear scientists and nuclear engineers.

“We will integrate these students into our curriculum,” he said. “The reason why we get support from the Department of Energy to revise our curriculum is to meet international standards in the style of educational programs.”

William Briscoe, the chair of the physics department, said the partnership was partly inspired by the desire to separate Ukraine from Russian influence in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a peninsula located in southern Ukraine, in 2014. He said the program is designed to train students who will likely work at Ukrainian nuclear power plants in the future.

“They want to be independent of Russia now, so the idea was floated around that Ukrainian operators and those who help maintain and develop these reactors, when they’re seeking advanced degrees, that should come from our side rather than the Russian side,” Briscoe said.

He said Ukrainian universities will select students who are interested in the program to apply to GW and Virginia Tech, and the DOE will cover the costs of their tuition and other fees. Briscoe declined to say how much funding the partnership has received from the DOE.

He added that the collaboration will boost the physics department’s national profile by providing students with an intensive education in nuclear science.

“It’s going to have a spotlight on it in the educational community,” he said. “I think that’s certainly something that will enhance our physics – and especially nuclear physics – program here.”

Alireza Haghighat, the director of Virginia Tech’s nuclear engineering program, said the partnership will combine the expertise of professors at GW in nuclear policy with Virginia Tech faculty’s expertise in nuclear research to give students a comprehensive understanding of nuclear power.

He said participating students will focus mostly on nuclear physics at GW or on nuclear engineering at Virginia Tech, but students may take a few courses at the other university to gain skills in both aspects of nuclear power plant operation.

Haghighat said the partnership will help bring the United States and Ukraine closer together by allowing students from both countries to learn about nuclear power side by side.

“It’s important for us as the United States to help train Ukrainians, particularly because they have a significant presence in the technology industry,” he said.

Roman Bobek and Ilena Peng contributed reporting.

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