Why Nuclear? A National Nuclear Science Week Interview with Dr. Michael Johnson

Photo of Nuclear Technician

Photo of Nuclear TechnicianThis week marks National Nuclear Science Week, a week-long national celebration of the benefits of nuclear technology and the many career opportunities open to nuclear engineering technology graduates. Excelsior Life sat down with Dr. Michael Johnson, faculty program director, School of Business and Technology, to talk about the changes in the nuclear industry over the past decade and how it might evolve moving forward. Before coming to academia, Dr. Johnson served for two decades as nuclear trained machinist in the U.S. Navy and in leadership positions within the Department of Energy following his retirement from active duty.

Excelsior Life: How has the nuclear industry changed over the past decade? What changes do you see on the horizon?

Dr. Johnson: The industry has recognized the need to develop a skilled workforce and have partnered with higher education institutes like Excelsior College as part of their workforce development programs. Forthcoming changes will be to develop future leaders for the industry. These future leaders will need to provide the leadership to ensure the nuclear industry plays a vital role in the country’s energy portfolio.

One in five households in the U.S. is electrically powered by nuclear energy. Thirteen percent of global electricity comes from nuclear. Of course, on the flip side, Fukishima is still on many people’s minds. Do you foresee growth in the nuclear industry in the coming years?

Dr. Johnson: Growth in the coming years will be a challenge and not necessarily from Fukishima. The challenge will be the costs associated with constructing new nuclear power plants in conjunction with a competitive energy market. The nuclear industry needs to be more competitive because the price of natural gas has driven down the cost of electricity. There are nuclear power plants being constructed in Georgia and South Carolina that are expected to be completed by the end of the decade. The industry is watching the construction closely because to ensure future construction these new plants need to be completed within budget and on schedule.

What programs does Excelsior offer in nuclear energy? What distinguishes Excelsior’s programs from similar offerings at other institutions?

Dr. Johnson: Excelsior has three degrees: Associates in Science degrees with concentrations in nuclear and power plant technologies, Associate in Science in Nuclear Technology (Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program), and Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology, an ABET accredited program.

The ABET accreditation is the recognized accreditation for engineering and technology degrees, as it focuses the accreditation process on engineering and technology related program outcomes. The nuclear industry recognizes the importance of engineering and technology degrees for safe operation of nuclear power plants. The rigor associated with the ABET accreditation provides the nuclear industry the confidence to employ individuals with degrees from ABET accredited institutes. Most companies in the nuclear industry will only employ individuals in engineering or management positions with degrees from ABET accredited institutes. Excelsior College was the first higher education institute to offer an ABET accredit program in nuclear engineering technology. Students can receive a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology from beginning to graduation through online courses offered at Excelsior College.

Josephine "Joy" Aburquez
US Navy veteran Josephine Aburquez receives her BS in Nuclear Engineering Technology at Excelsior College’s 2013 Commencement Ceremony in Albany, NY.

Do most of Excelsior’s students veterans of the U.S. Nuclear Navy or have prior experience in the nuclear industry?

Dr. Johnson: The majority of Excelsior students in the nuclear technology degree programs are veterans or currently serving in the U.S. Nuclear Navy. There are some students from commercial nuclear industry. Students receive credits from their training in the U.S. Nuclear Navy and commercial nuclear power plants. U.S. Navy veterans receive classroom training nuclear physics, chemistry, reactor plant systems, and reactor design. They also receive hands on training to operate nuclear power plants at the U.S Navy Prototypes. The U.S. Navy training was evaluated and credits assigned for specific subject areas. The commercial nuclear industry has similar training requirements with the U.S. Navy and credits are assigned through the same process.

[Read about U.S. Navy Veteran and 2013 BS in Nuclear Engineering Technology graduate Joy Aburquez]

Why might a technician already working at a nuclear plant consider returning to school for an advanced degree?

Dr. Johnson: Some technicians may want to advance their careers by entering management. Most utilities require some form of technical degree to be in management. A four year degree from an ABET accredited program provides technicians an opportunity for management positions. The Excelsior College nuclear engineering technology program offers courses in the arts and sciences that provide technicians the technical knowledge and skill set to advance into leadership positions in the nuclear industry.

What types of career opportunities are available to nuclear engineering technology graduates who perhaps aren’t interested in working for a power plant?

Dr. Johnson: From my experience individuals with degrees in nuclear engineering technology and nuclear plant experience can find career opportunities in technology related fields such as wind and solar. The rigor of the degree program and working in the nuclear field is appealing to employers in technology related fields.


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