University Hosts Saudi Engineering Students

Undergraduates Take Part in Nuclear Energy Program

Undergraduates Take Part in Nuclear Energy Program

Assoc. Prof. Sukesh Aghara, second from right, demonstrates a handheld radiation detector to nuclear engineering students from Saudi Arabia.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

UMass Lowell is hosting 23 engineering sophomores and juniors from King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as part of the University’s Nuclear Energy Education and Training (NEET) program. The eight-week program started June 25 and will end Aug. 16.

“Saudi Arabia has set aside $500 billion from oil revenues to develop alternative energy sources,” says chemical engineering Assoc. Prof. Sukesh Aghara, NEET’s program director. “The Saudis know that fossil fuel is a finite resource so they have put together an aggressive plan to tap solar, wind and, of course, nuclear power to meet the rising electrical demand of its growing population.” 

According to the World Nuclear Association, Saudi Arabia plans to construct 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $80 billion, with the first reactor coming on line in 2022.

“Saudi Arabia has the largest energy expansion plan in the Middle East, aiming to increase the country’s generating capacity from 55 gigawatts to 120 gigawatts by 2020,” says Aghara.

Other Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan, are also pursuing nuclear energy development. As noted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to be successful each country needs to develop a well-educated and trained indigenous workforce.

“UMass Lowell, with its long-standing nuclear science and engineering academic programs and with its 1-megawatt research reactor and associated laboratories, is well-positioned to help meet this demand for highly skilled and technically trained workforce,” notes Aghara. “We can provide education and training to engineers and technicians who will be operating and maintaining the reactors in their respective countries.” 

In addition to Aghara, other members of the NEET faculty include chemical engineering Profs. John White and Gilbert Brown as well as a number of nuclear industry experts, including Reiner Kuhr of the energy infrastructure company Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I). 

A Very Competitive Process

UMass Lowell, in collaboration with CB&I, submitted the winning proposal in spring to offer the NEET program. 

“It was a very competitive process,” says Aghara. “Putting together the proposal was a real team effort, drawing on the University’s long experience in nuclear engineering education and the CB&I’s history of nuclear plant design and construction.”

The NEET program, which is being funded by Saudi Arabia, consists of classroom lectures by UMass Lowell professors and industry experts on the fundamentals of nuclear science and engineering, radiation protection, reactor kinetics and dynamics and reactor systems and safety. It also includes seminars on nuclear plant siting and construction management.

Key features of the program are hands-on workshops and experiments at the UMass Lowell Radiation Laboratory as well as experiential learning and peer-learning through interactions with University graduate-student researchers. Some presentations were conducted at the CB&I office in Canton. These are supplemented by tours of commercial nuclear power plants, including Pilgrim in Plymouth, Seabrook in New Hampshire and Millstone in Connecticut, as well as visits to MIT’s research reactor and other industrial facilities.

“The program’s content adheres to UMass Lowell’s strict compliance standards and does not include any export-controlled materials,” explains Aghara. “All facilities that will be visited will have appropriate levels of security to protect any client proprietary information and therefore will have appropriate access restrictions for all visitors. In particular, each facility will require advance security clearance for all participants. Any information provided during this program will be limited to that available in the public domain.” 

He adds: “UMass Lowell is the first academic institution to host such a large number of Saudi students for nuclear engineering education and training. We hope NEET will pave the way for more interactions with King Abdulaziz University and be a model for other international university partnerships and collaborations that promote faculty and student exchanges.”