KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An Oak Ridge contractor is partnering with the University of Tennessee to teach students about nuclear decommissioning.
UCOR is the company that is charged with environmental cleanup of Oak Ridge facilities used during World War Two and Cold War-era conflicts.
Workers say complete cleanup will take generations, and they need to secure a future workforce.
UT and UCOR helped create the nuclear decommissioning minor a few years ago. UT says four students graduated with that minor last year.
The students are learning about how to safely take down contaminated buildings so they don't cause environmental harm.
For instance, environmental workers have a goal to turn East Tennessee Technology Park completely over to the private sector in 2020. To meet that goal, more decommissioning and demolition has to happen.
Decades ago the former K-25 site helped fuel the world's first atomic bomb.
But now its facilities are no longer in use and some pose environmental hazards.
Workers and taxpayers need the right kind of people to clean that up safely.
"Its not a shortage you can realize on a Thursday and have fixed on a Monday," said UCOR President and CEO Ken Rueter.
Rueter says he wants to be more proactive about hiring people that know how to do the work correctly, so he turned to UT.
"You can't just knock down a building that was used in some way for weapons production," said Dr. Wes Hines, the department head of UT's nuclear engineering program and creator of the nuclear decommissioning minor. "You have to go in and assess what's in the building and remove any contamination."
Students learn about removing radioactive and chemical contaminants.And they say they are especially interested in the environmental impacts.
"A policy overview of how we got to where we are now," said student Jonathan Wing.
"Basically our unofficial motto here is we're only trying to save the world," said student John Wagner.
UCOR says it's not just Oak Ridge—there are hundreds of nuclear sites around the country that will need the same decommissioning.
"There's an astronomical amount of work to be done over the next 50 years," Rueter said.
UT says it's the first university to offer this kind of program. The University is building a new engineering building next to Neyland Stadium.
UCOR says it's had 20 interns from UT and 10 of them are now employed full time.