POCATELLO — A new addition puts the Idaho State University College of Technology at the forefront of training future nuclear technicians and control operators.
Installed in August, the small modular nuclear reactor simulator allows ISU to train operators and technicians in real-world circumstances.
“At ISU, nuclear operations students experience the past, current and future of nuclear energy,” said Debra Ronneburg, ISU’s interim dean of the College of Technology.
The simulator is an addition to the College of Technology’s Nuclear Technology Program, funded by Gov. Brad Little’s Building Idaho’s Future Grant money.
According to its coordinator, Mackenzie Gorham, the program is focused on filling outstanding needs within the field. One of the employers that hires out of the program recently told her that it plans to hire 200 new technicians over the next year.
“There are more jobs available than there are graduates across the industry,” she said.
The simulator control room is built to specs provided by NuScale Power, an Oregon-based nuclear power generator site. In it, students run a generator simulation that puts them in real-world circumstances based on the actual operations at NuScale.
Anselmo Mata, a second-year student in the program, told EastIdahoNews.com that operations inside the simulator run the way they would at an actual site.
“Being in the control room is definitely really cool,” he said. “This is actually something that we would do in-industry. This is a job position. It’s something that we’re actually preparing ourselves with so we can start working and not be lost.”
As Gorham said, the simulator can be set to run a wide range of settings. While guiding a tour of the site, Gorham had four of her students run an operation. During the operation, she triggered a simulated earthquake, forcing the students to continue the operation in, what she called, “abnormal conditions.”
“They learn how to communicate with each other, to make sure that important system information is related correctly and accurately,” Gorham said of the control room.
NuScale played a larger role than just providing schematics for the control room. As spokesman Doug Bowman told EastIdahoNews.com, company representatives were there throughout the development process.
Bowman called the program and NuScale’s partnership with it “exciting,” saying it can go a long way in alleviating the industry’s dire need of engineers, technicians and operators. NuScale, he added, has instructed classes and will continue to provide information that would benefit the program.
“We’re definitely involved here, and I think our involvement is going to increase as time goes on,” he said.
ISU’s Nuclear Technology Program is a two-year program, Gorham said, though prerequisite classes mean many of the program’s graduates need five semesters. At graduation, students receive associate in applied science degrees, with 96% of them receiving job offers — with an annual starting salary of $70,000-plus — directly out of school.
One current student, Ellen Jenkins, is scheduled to graduate next spring but has already attained a reactor operator license from Nuclear Regulatory Commission and accepted a job offer at the Idaho National Laboratory.t
Jenkins called the new simulator an exciting addition to the program, adding that she has worked with similar equipment during her internship at INL.
“I’m excited for where this program is going,” she told EastIdahoNews.com. “It does make me a little jealous, I’m not going to lie, because I know how much better the program is going to get in another year.”
In addition to the $260,000 simulator, the ISU College of Technology used its $1 million in grant money to invest in several programs.
The diesel technology program purchased a fleet of diesel tractors, meaning final exams in the program will now require student to completely disassemble and re-assemble new tractors.
The machining, welding and cybersecurity programs also received similar investments.
Representatives of the College of Technology were excited to show off much of the new tech added through the grant.
But the prize is, without a doubt, the simulator and what it does for the nuclear technology program.
“It’s a very competitive degree that students get jobs with,” Gorham said. “Here at ISU, it’s a great opportunity for the local community and to educate the local workforce.”