Central Mass. could be nuclear training leader


David Medich

In December 2015, John Boice, president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, cited the alarming decrease in qualified nuclear scientists.

Boice warned how the lack of qualified nuclear science professionals coupled with limited advocacy and a decrease in federal and state funding led to a national crisis in which urgent national needs will not be met.

Over the past few years, steps have been taken to help remedy this situation. Last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission awarded 51 grants totaling $15 million to 40 universities to enhance nuclear science and engineering education and research programs. Regionally, grants were awarded to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MIT, and UMass Lowell.

Worcester, in particular, stands to gain from this new development. Due to Worcester's concentration of high-quality universities, hospitals and industry, Central Massachusetts is perfectly positioned to become a leader in developing the next generation of nuclear scientists.

Nuclear scientists are employed in fields as diverse as diagnostic and therapeutic medicine (medical physics); radiological health, safety and protection (health physics); nuclear power, security and environmental protection.

Central Mass. universities could gain national recognition by having local universities, hospitals and industry working together to offer multi-disciplinary nuclear programs.

It will take vision and creativity to launch these programs. Programs could be offered at various local universities to represent all levels of nuclear science education, including associate's degrees in radiologic and MRI technology (median annual national salary of about $60,000) and nuclear medicine technology ($75,000); bachelor's degrees in radiation dosimetry ($114,000) and health physics ($80,000 uncertified to $115,000 with certification) as well as graduate degrees in medical physics ($120,000).

Each program should have a steering committee including regional representatives in education, health care and industry. The committee would be charged with updating the program curriculum, discussing needs and advocating for modern equipment. An overall program steering committee could be formed of representatives of each program and upper administrators in local health care and industry.

This committee could help facilitate the program development, offer potential healthcare and/or industry candidates for the program steering committees, and help programs to work together to maximize productivity. This will have the benefit of enhancing the overall stability.

While these efforts may require significant effort, its foundation already is well developed. Through a combination of creativity, industry and academic collaboration, and continued federal funding, the once-bleak future of nuclear science and engineering programs is looking brighter.

David Medich is an associate professor of physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and director of WPI's nuclear science and engineering program.