Moussa Mahgerefteh, PhD in Nuclear Engineering, Nuclear Core Designer, Dept. Training Coordinator, Three-Mile Island Facility, Exelon Corporation

By Meghan Anzelc

Dr. Moussa Mahgerefteh work for the Exelon Corporation as a nuclear reactor core designer for the Three-Mile Island reactor.  He also serves as their Department Training Coordinator.  His path to the nuclear engineering field began as a master’s student at Fairleigh Dickenson University in New Jersey.

At that time, Mahgerefteh was considering his career options and his future employment prospects.  Though he wanted to obtain his PhD in physics, at that time, he says, “university professors weren’t getting great salaries, unlike today.”  By the end of his master’s program he felt “I have to start making a living.”  Mahgerefteh thought it would be better to pursue his PhD in a field where the pay was better and decided to switch fields and obtain his PhD in nuclear physics.

When asked what attracted him to the nuclear engineering field, Mahgerefteh says, “It was a frontier on the science part; it was physics at work.”  Mahgerefteh liked being able to apply his knowledge to real-life problems.  He concentrated on neutron transport for his PhD work at Virginia Tech, and Mahgerefteh says he didn’t have any trouble making the transition to industry, “maybe because I prepared for it…I had job offers before I was finished with my dissertation.”  Before he had finished his PhD he was already working for GPU (prior owners of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant).  “Actually I had not finished my dissertation when I went to work; I finished it while I was at work,” says Mahgerefteh.

Mahgerefteh contributes his success in finding a job quickly to his choice of PhD field, knowing that the nuclear engineering job market was open and that he would be able to get a position without any problems.  Whereas, he says, “had I gone into academics, I had to get a post-doc and the future did not look great at that time.”

Although Mahgerefteh had planned ahead and pursued a field with good job prospects, he could not have foreseen how things would change.  Not long after obtaining his PhD, the Three Mile Island accident occurred.  His choice to pursue a career in nuclear engineering “was a good decision,” Mahgerefteh says, but, “I would be happier if nuclear [engineering] would have prospered as it was supposed to.”  He says that if he had known the field would take a turn for the worse, “I would have taken something that was also close to physics – laser optics; that was a side choice I had in my mind when I was going for a PhD.”

During three of the five years the Three Mile Island was shut down following the accident, Mahgerefteh spent much of his time doing radiological work, helping to answer many of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s questions about the facility.  He has stayed at the Three Mile Island facility, working for Excelon’s predecessors and eventually Exelon itself.  Now, Mahgerefteh is still involved in neutronics as well as dose calculations and shielding issues, but his most impressive work is in core design.  “I design the Three Mile Island core and I’m happy about what I have done for this plant.   I have been a pioneer in doing new things in the arena of pressurized water reactors,” says Mahgerefteh.  One of his biggest achievements has been to make changes to the TMI core design so that it can be run in a two-year cycle, as opposed to the core designed for a one-year cycle.

In a one-year cycle, Mahgerefteh spent half of each year on core design and half on implementation issues.   Because of the two-year core cycle, Mahgerefteh spends less time on core design and implementation and is able to broaden his responsibilities.  He says, “for six months I spend most of my time designing the core, looking for new ideas to implement into the design.  The rest of the time I support the core engineers, answer their questions; if there are any anomalies I help address those.”  In addition, he now acts as Department Training Coordinator: “I help the nuclear fuel people to take their training, make sure they are qualified to perform their tasks, and organize the training,” Mahgerefteh says.  In his remaining time he makes sure he keeps up with the industry news to be aware of what’s going on and make his own contributions.  He has co-published a few articles in industry journals, mostly on cycle design optimization and neutron transport.

When asked about the pros and cons of his career, Mahgerefteh replies, “The most satisfying is that I really have been able to contribute to Three Mile Island.  I have been able to utilize the fuel mode efficiently and not only does that have an economic impact but when you use the fuel mode efficiently you have less waste.  I feel very good about that.”  While his career has been quite successful, the challenge, he says, is public relations.  “The public had a negative attitude toward nuclear power generation, and I feel back that they have had such a negative attitude,” he says.  Mahgerefteh points out that the public view of nuclear power is changing and is hopeful about the future of the field.  He says, “there are plans to build more nuclear plants” and he hopes that nuclear power “will be a big source of electrical [power] generation in this country.”

What advice does Mahgerefteh have for students interested in a career like his?  He offers the same advice he gives his children: “I tell my children you have to pursue what you love.  You need to pursue whatever you like and when you like something so much you will be good at it.”  He continues, “I loved physics and science; although my position description is engineering, most of my work is related to science and physics.”

As for the job prospects in nuclear engineering, Mahgerefteh says, “right now is a good time to get into it, not only in this country but in Asia and Europe.  Pursue this career because there are going to be a lot of opportunities…a lot of people in the industry are now at the age of retiring.  Not only that, but when we build new power plants there will be more need for people who have come right out of school.”  In addition to the growing job market, Mahgerefteh says that “you can work in industry and teach on a part-time level.”  When he started his career he was also teaching, and when he retires completely, he says, “I think I’ll take on teaching again.”