As Alireza Haghighat stood beside Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in Norton, Virginia, on Oct. 14, he also stood at a crossroads: the payoff of more than a decade of work in public policy and the challenge to continue the momentum he has achieved.

That momentum means new possibilities for the educational programs the Robert E. Hord Jr. Professor of Mechanical Engineering has helped build and leadership opportunities for Virginia Tech in the field of energy.

Going nuclear

Nuclear energy has been established as the most efficient and carbon-neutral way to produce power. Despite that fact, fossil fuels remain the largest source of power for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Changing the course of an entire state and its energy policy, of course, takes time and effort.

When Haghighat joined Virginia Tech’s faculty in 2011, one of his objectives was to work with industry and government partners to expand nuclear power within Virginia. Haghighat entered a nuclear engineering program at Virginia Tech that was rebuilding from dormancy, as degrees in that discipline had last been awarded in the late ’90s. He wanted to play an active role in building the infrastructure that would equip the state with the resources to train its nuclear engineering workforce through higher education. As a researcher and instructor at Virginia Tech, he also started ramping up the resources offered to students who might join that workforce.

One of Haghighat’s early steps was joining the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, an organization created by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2013 and of which Haghighat was a founding member and chairman from 2015-18. In general, the team-up brought together nuclear energy stakeholders from institutions around the state representing higher education, industry, and state government. Their common goal was to support the advancement of Virginia’s nuclear power industry.

That organization guided state lawmakers in decisions related to the expansion of nuclear energy. Haghighat worked with several members of the consortium to spearhead the creation of a statewide, nuclear energy-focused research and development hub. Haghighat teamed up with academic colleagues from Liberty University, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Commonwealth University as well as industry representatives from Framatome, Dominion Power, General Electric, Lightbridge, and Newport News Shipbuilding. The group diligently pressed for the expansion of carbon-clean nuclear power through five gubernatorial administrations, making steady advances for over a decade.

Policy work leads to public support

The effort culminated with Youngkin’s Oct. 14 announcement that he would propose $10 million in the state budget to bolster energy efforts, including the nuclear industry, throughout Virginia. He also announced his support for the establishment of a Virginia Nuclear Innovation Hub with an initial budget of $5 million for two years.

Following the announcement, Haghighat offered comments to the media on the historic moment.

“To achieve the goals set by the governor’s energy plan, nuclear must be a part of the solution,” Haghighat said. “This investment in nuclear innovation, and the establishment of the Virginia Nuclear Innovation Hub, will unite the public and private sectors in advancing Virginia’s standing as a leader in nuclear energy.”

His comments focus tightly on the wider picture presented by Youngkin in the Virginia Energy plan.

“The only way to confidently move toward a reliable, affordable, and clean energy future in Virginia is to go all-in on innovation in nuclear, carbon capture, and new technology like hydrogen generation, along with building on our leadership in offshore wind and solar,” Youngkin wrote in the opening letter of the plan. “Energy innovation will not just honor our calling to environmental stewardship, it will deliver economic development and job creation opportunities across the commonwealth, including in Southwest Virginia, where this plan calls for launching a commercial small modular nuclear reactor in the next 10 years.”

For Virginia Tech, there are new opportunities to be seized. With the influx of state money and policy support, educational offerings can follow the momentum to fill jobs that are certain to be needed. This will include recruiting students for nuclear undergraduate and graduate education as well as capitalizing on the new resources coming online as nuclear energy facilities are built.

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