Dr. Alan Icenhour recently retired as Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). His more than 30 years of nuclear experience has included R&D on a range of fuel cycle topics such as enrichment, radiochemical processing, stable and radioisotope production, nuclear fuels, radiation effects on materials, radioactive waste management, and nuclear security. Prior to joining ORNL, he was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, serving on a nuclear submarine. After leaving active duty, he continued as a reservist, retiring with the rank of Captain. He holds a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering from NC State, and master’s and PhD degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee. Alan is a NC State Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Awardee, NC State Nuclear Engineering Wall of Fame Inductee, and a Distinguished Alumni Speaker.
We had a chance to ask Dr. Icenhour about his experiences at NC State and throughout his illustrious career in nuclear engineering.
“When did you know you wanted to have a career in nuclear engineering?”
“In high school I was very interested in math and science—in particular, chemistry and physics. I had a great chemistry and physics teacher who introduced me to nuclear energy and the applications of nuclear technology. We even took a field trip to a nuclear power plant that was under construction. When I decided to go to NCSU and major in engineering, I selected nuclear engineering because it enabled me to pursue the technologies that I had heard about, and it also was one of the hardest majors. That was a challenge that I wanted. I was fortunate to interact with faculty members who had been involved in the Manhattan Project and who established the foundations of the degree program that I was pursuing. I realized that at NCSU Nuclear Engineering I was part of something special and that the degree from there would serve as a solid foundation for my career.”
What advice would you give an NE undergraduate as they look beyond their degree?
“I’d advise them to remember that the degree gives them a great launching point for a rewarding career. Also, I like to emphasize that the field is more than energy, as there are many important and impactful applications of nuclear technology. Their career can follow many trajectories—in fact, you have the opportunity for multiple careers. I did just that as I was able to operate nuclear reactors in the US Navy; analyze environmental transport for the disposal of radioactive waste; perform research on radiation effects on materials and nuclear fuels; serve as a senior technical advisor on nonproliferation technologies in Washington DC; lead the development and deployment of nuclear security technologies; establish new production of radioisotopes; and serve in leadership roles at multiple organizational levels, both in the Navy and at a National Laboratory. Each of these roles, while related to nuclear technologies, took me in a different career direction: operator, researcher, advisor, and leader. And they each helped me grow in knowledge and skills. The foundation that I had in my nuclear engineering degree enabled me to have many different experiences and opened the door to many opportunities. So, I’d advise undergraduates to seek out new opportunities that provide them with a challenge and where they can make an impact. Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges. That is when you grow both professionally and personally.”
What recent developments in nuclear energy has surprised you the most?
“For nuclear energy, the most surprising thing that I have seen in recent years is the amount of private investment in new technologies to bring them to market. And this is happening for both fission and fusion energy technologies. Nuclear energy, because of its beginnings, was initially largely developed through public investment. To reach the levels and rate of deployment needed, it is exciting to see such private interest in investing in this important energy source. But, to achieve this deployment, it is going to take engagement and investment through both public and private mechanisms. There is good evidence that this is happening through the establishment of public-private partnerships, as well as focused efforts by the public sector in maturing nuclear energy technologies. Of course, as these technologies are developed and deployed, the workforce needs to grow. And it is important for institutions such as NCSU not only to advance technologies, but to educate and develop the workforce that we need to deploy and operate them.”