URI engineering students win national nuclear design competition

Students beat largest nuclear engineering programs in U.S.

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 2, 2010 – Despite not having a nuclear engineering major and having only approved a nuclear engineering minor four months ago, the University of Rhode Island can boast that it has some of the best nuclear engineering students in the United States. A team of five URI students have won the undergraduate division of the annual Student Design Competition sponsored by the American Nuclear Society.

Established in 1975, the competition is intended to promote excellence in the design aspect of nuclear engineering education. This was the first year that a team from URI entered the competition.

“We raised a lot of eyebrows out there,” said Bahram Nassersharif, distinguished professor of mechanical engineering and the advisor to the winning team. “There are approximately 30 nuclear engineering programs in the country, all at really big universities, so we made a huge positive impression on students from other universities and the professionals attending the conference.”

The URI team consisted of Michael Audette of Lincoln, Charlie Hanley of Woonsocket, Jim Leuzarder of Wakefield, Dan McCleary of Cheshire, Conn., and Kevin Plourde of Portsmouth. All are current students or recent graduates studying mechanical engineering.

The competition requires student teams to submit a report addressing a specific nuclear engineering related design problem. The URI team designed a solution to a problem at the research reactor located at the University’s Narragansett Bay campus.

Built in 1964 and operated by the Rhode Island Atomic Energy Commission, the two megawatt nuclear reactor is primarily used by medical researchers in Rhode Island, as well as by several URI engineering classes.

The students designed and installed an upgrade to the reactor’s irradiated sample transportation system, which safely transports research samples to the reactor core to become irradiated and then back to a laboratory. The system designed by the students makes it easier for workers to collect and store irradiated samples while limiting their exposure to radiation. The 7-foot long, lead-lined device uses pneumatic tubes to transport the samples into and out of the reactor’s containment building. It weighs 6.8 tons.

“What really differentiated us from the rest of the competition was that we actually built our project and it’s now implemented in the reactor, while other teams just created a theoretical design,” said Plourde.

After submitting their report last summer, the students were notified in September that they would be competing against North Carolina State University in the final round of the contest. In mid-November they traveled to Las Vegas to give a 30-minute presentation about their project to a team of judges.

“I didn’t want to get my hopes up in the beginning because I didn’t know how we would measure up against the biggest nuclear engineering programs in the country,” said Audette. “But not only were we competitive, but we won.”

The URI students got started on their project during their senior capstone engineering class last year. They did so well on the class project that Nassersharif encouraged them to enter the competition.

“The whole course proved invaluable – the engineering work, the teamwork, the reports we had to write,” Audette said. “And the competition helped us even more by setting us up for future career opportunities.”

Pictured above

Members of the URI team that won the national nuclear design competition: (l-r) Team advisor Bahram Nassersharif and students Charlie Hanley, Kevin Plourde, and Michael Audette.