At its November meeting, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved the offering of masters and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering. The university will now send the proposal to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia for its confirmation.

The proposed starting date for the new degree programs is spring semester of 2013.

Virginia Tech's College of Engineering revived its nuclear engineering program in 2007 and soon started offering graduate course work that allowed a student to earn a master's of engineering degree in mechanical engineering with a nuclear certificate.

"Our long term vision is to create an interdisciplinary program in nuclear science and engineering," said Ken Ball, head of the mechanical engineering department, who has expertise in nuclear materials and engineering. "Our program would encompass the nuclear sciences and medicine as well as nuclear engineering and reach across three Virginia Tech colleges."

"With the critical demand for energy by our nation and the world, we were pleased to renew our concentration on nuclear engineering," said Richard C. Benson, dean of Virginia Tech's College of Engineering. "For the past several years the college has been working toward this goal, and we have hired several faculty members with excellent credentials in nuclear engineering education.

"Also, we have strategic relationships with a number of industrial and government entities, including AREVA NP Inc., Northrop-Grumman/Newport News Shipbuilding, Babcock and Wilcox, Dominion Resources, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Department of Energy, that have shown support for our nuclear engineering program. I believe educating our very bright students in this area is beneficial to them and to society."

In 2009, Virginia Tech's nuclear engineering program received approximately $850,000 from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for faculty development and for fellowships.

Leading the effort in mechanical engineering are two faculty members, Mark Pierson and Eugene Brown. Pierson was formerly on the staff of the director of naval reactors, a joint Department of Defense/Department of Energy organization founded by Admiral Hyman Rickover. He was responsible for operational and maintenance input for all SW5 naval nuclear reactors and shipboard radiological controls. In 1992 he was named executive officer, second-in-command, of the USS Indianapolis SSN 697, a fast attack submarine.

From 1994 until 1997 Pierson served as the submarine maintenance program officer for the director of submarine warfare on the chief of naval operations staff at the Pentagon. In 1998 he was named deputy department head of the engineering, materials, and physical sciences department, and program officer for nuclear ballistic missile submarine security, for the Office of Naval Research. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2001 and enrolled at Virginia Tech to earn his doctoral degree in mathematics. In 2011 he received the Sporn Award for Teaching Excellence, given by the students in the college of engineering.

In the past year, the college has hired two additional faculty in mechanical engineering who concentrate their teaching and research efforts in nuclear engineering, Alireza Haghighat and Leigh Winfrey.  The college also hired Celine Hin who holds a joint appointment between the mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering departments.

Haghighat is a past chair of both the Nuclear Engineering Department Heads Organization and the International Advisory Council for the Nuclear and Quantum Engineering Department at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Haghighat moved to the Virginia Tech, leaving his post as the Florida Power and Light Endowed Term Professor at the University of Florida. At the Florida campus, he started as the chair of the nuclear and radiological engineering department in 2001, and spent eight years in this position. He is a Fellow of the American Nuclear Society, and currently serves as the chair of the board of the Southeast Universities Nuclear Reactors Institute for Science and Education.

Winfrey was a research scholar in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at North Carolina State University before joining Virginia Tech. Additionally, she coordinated the education program for the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, which is the DOE's Innovation Hub for Modeling and Simulation of Nuclear Reactors.

Hin came to the United States as a researcher in the University of California at Berkeley's Department of Nuclear Engineering in 2006. In 2007 she moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's College of Engineering.

Pierson said he hopes to have Virginia Tech's program in the top five nuclear engineering programs within 10 years.