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Penn State Expanding Nuclear Engineering Program

by on March 31, 2019 5:00 AM

This video is produced by and for Centre County Report and is shared through a partnership with

Maddie Biertempfel reports.

Last week marked 40 years since the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg. Not only did the incident damage public perception of nuclear energy, but fewer students were enrolling in nuclear engineering programs nationwide in the aftermath.

Penn State was no exception.

"Our junior class was seven. The funding for nuclear energy was zero," said Arthur Motta, who chairs Penn State's nuclear engineering program. 

Over the years, however, Penn State's nuclear engineering program has been making a comeback.

"[The class now has] 45, 47 juniors in nuclear engineering... There's over $43 million in funding," Motta said.

In July, the university will make nuclear engineering its own department and nearly double its faculty, from eight to 15, thanks to an endowment. 

Nuclear energy research has been a part of the university since 1955, when Penn State first started operating its Breazeale Reactor. Today, it's one of a few universities in the country that still has a research reactor on campus. 

Despite poor public perception of nuclear energy following events like Three Mile Island, Motta says it's a safe and clean form of energy. 

"If we close down nuclear power plants, our goals for having clean energy, that is energy production without the emission of greenhouse gasses, will be severely affected," he said. 

Students like Ph.D. candidate Pierre-Clement Simon say nuclear energy is important in combatting climate change, since it creates little waste and no carbon emissions. 

"There are so many ways to appreciate nuclear energy that I hope we're going to get to that point where nuclear energy is more widely accepted," Simon said. 

Many Americans are still split on the issue, stemming from concerns about storing spent fuel and accidents that could release radiation. A recent Gallup poll found 49 percent supported nuclear power in the U.S., up from about 44 percent in 2016. 


The Centre County Report is produced by students and faculty from Penn State's College of Communications. It is designed to serve a dual purpose. It is a source of news and information to the residents of Centre County.
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