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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Pioneering partnership opens doors to a new generation of engineers

Argonne, Packaging University continue to inspire future professionals in the nuclear packaging industry through pioneering certificates program.

The demand for experts in nuclear packaging — the field that helps ensure the safety of nuclear and other radioactive materials in use, disposal, storage and transportation — is growing, nationally and globally.

Nuclear and other radioactive materials are a part of everyday life. They are used in medicine, clean energy, the food industry and national defense. The unique knowledge and experience of nuclear packaging professionals is critical to ensure that these industries are safe and secure.

The certificates program in nuclear packaging is really unique — it’s like a combination of a seminar, a conference and a networking event, with the benefit of a university graduate credential at the end.” — Megan Higley

To help meet demand for qualified engineers, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Argonne National Laboratory, DOE’s Packaging Certification Program, the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and other DOE national laboratories have come together in a novel partnership for training and certifying the next generation of leaders and professionals in this niche field.

DOE has long had a productive partnership with the UNR and its nuclear packaging courses of study,” said William Ike” White, DOE senior advisor for Environmental Management. Students who are receiving training and certification through the Packaging University’ program are helping the department develop the next- generation well-trained, technically skilled and diverse workforce.”

Argonne, as the lead laboratory, has already celebrated program graduate Kelly Hansen, Transportation Safety program manager in Argonne’s Nuclear and Waste Management division. Program partners are now celebrating May 2022 graduates Ed Cagle, Megan Higley, Kyle Paaren and Ross Whittenbarger, who have each earned a Graduate Certificate in Nuclear Packaging (GCNP).

The certificates program in nuclear packaging is really unique,” said Higley — it’s like a combination of a seminar, a conference and a networking event, with the benefit of a university graduate credential at the end.”

Filling a Critical Gap

Nuclear packaging is a specialized activity that is performed by a relatively small number of professionals. And, over the next decade, highly experienced leaders and professionals in nuclear packaging will retire from the field. Said Argonne’s Yung Liu, manager of the Packaging Certification and Life Cycle Management program, It’s imperative we provide proactive training opportunities for next-generation professionals.” 

The graduate certificate programs bridge the knowledge and experience gap between longtime experts in the field and students, as well as early- and mid-career engineers looking for opportunities to enter the field.

The nuclear packaging industry needs a focused strategy to get new people into the field, and we’ve found a way to do that through the partnership by offering two graduate certificate programs — one in nuclear packaging and the second in transport security and safeguards,” said Miles Greiner, Foundation Professor of Mechanical Engineering, UNR and UNR Nuclear Packaging graduate program director.  We’re giving people the tools to be successful in the packaging field — a field that is important to numerous industries, but most people don’t even know it exists,” he added.

Reaching potential students is a key challenge. Said Liu, who is a co-founder and co-principal educator of the program, Our broader goal is to reach out to potential students in all fields of engineering, both in the United States and abroad, to learn of this novel program and develop the key skills they need to help solve complex problems in nuclear packaging.”

Internships Help Drive Success

One of the program’s strengths is the opportunity students have at national laboratories, industries and government sites to work with leaders in the packaging field, like Liu at Argonne. Particularly valuable is the information gained through hands-on learning at various national laboratories that specialize in the field,” said former Argonne intern Paaren, who earned his Ph.D. in 2019 and was hired as a staff scientist by Idaho National Laboratory. I am very grateful for the opportunity and support of Dr. Liu and Argonne to complete this program,” he added.

Higley, a UNR Ph.D. student researching the thermal behavior of spent nuclear fuel casks, was also an intern at Argonne and attended classes at the lab. I really liked the sense of community among the students and the effort that went into developing the students through that program,” she said. She also valued the practical application of her specialized education. My certificate will allow me to leverage the knowledge and skills I developed throughout grad school with the regulatory aspects I learned from the certificate.”

Whittenbarger, packaging engineer at the Y‑12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, agreed. It was a unique experience to meet and network with the instructors and classmates from many other national labs and production sites.”

Program participants leveraged their internships and program courses to meet personal and professional goals. For that reason, recent graduates encourage engineering students to consider the program. Said Paaren, I highly recommend the DOE Nuclear Packaging program. My experience has significantly provided a solid foundation for my work in canister analysis, a prototype demonstration of an inherently safe mobile nuclear reactor.”

Industry Benefits

The partnership also benefits industry through the transfer of knowledge from the experienced to the early career professional. It’s well known that the industry is aging, so many focused interactions between incoming professionals and those that have experience is invaluable,” said Higley. Providing pathways for this transfer is the first step in ensuring information isn’t lost,” she explained.

Whittenbarger knows first-hand the industry benefits of the program. The nuclear packaging and transportation engineering group that I am a part of manages the entire packaging life cycle,” he said. The nine credit hours that are required for the GCNP program have provided additional information and training in the many codes, standards and regulations required to be successful in my field.”

As a first-line manager for nuclear process infrastructure at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Cagle also appreciates the value of the program to the industry. We prepare and ship transuranic waste from Los Alamos to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico. I plan to use the knowledge gained by completing this certificate to help ensure that my organization continues to ship waste in a safe, efficient and legally compliant manner,” he explained.

Looking Ahead

Students and program leaders agree that the pioneering partnership meets a critical and growing need for expertise in nuclear packaging. Looking ahead, program partners are exploring new opportunities for students. Said James Shuler, manager of the DOE Packaging Certification Program, Thanks to the success of our DOE, UNR and supporting national lab partners, like Argonne, we now envision offering an MS degree in nuclear packaging.” Greiner noted the degree would offer students a research-based opportunity to explore the field — a first in the nuclear packaging field.

Contact Liu (yliu@​anl.​gov) to learn more about the program and Argonne’s participation.

Click here to learn more about the program and admission requirements.

Click here to learn more about the Packaging University

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.