DOE official and Engineering alumna designing nuclear cleanup curriculum

A holding tank for contaminated salt wastes at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. DOE and its contractors have agreed to treat 36 million gallons of high level liquid wast by 2022.

A legacy that dates to the Manhattan Project left 107 U.S. sites where energy research and weapons production created conditions that require specialized cleanup.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees these locations, has made much progress, but plenty of complex, expensive work remains. Sue Cange, who has three decades of experience in federal leadership positions and helped develop the EPA policies that govern cleanup of contaminated Superfund sites, is at the School of Engineering to develop training for the generation that will continue the mission.

Cange (BE ’82, MS ’83) is a visiting scholar for two years in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She is working on a number of initiatives focused on workforce development, including establishing a new nuclear environmental engineering curriculum and an internship program that will place students with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The need for new engineers, project managers, and other on-the-ground employees with expertise in nuclear environmental engineering is critical. The average age of DOE employees involved in the cleanup effort is 52, said Cange, who most recently was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM).

At DOE, 44 percent of those in the program are eligible to retire between 2017 and 2020. Only 26 of the 1,350 federal employees involved are under the age of 30.

“This is a real problem,” she said. “I’ve talked about it a lot over the years, but there has not been much focus on coming up with plans to address this issue.”

So, with other Vanderbilt experts, Cange will tackle the looming talent crisis.

Cange, who remains a DOE employee, is known as a master team builder with an impressive history of public speaking, community outreach and mentoring, according to Vanderbilt officials.

The Vanderbilt community and students will benefit greatly from her “tremendous professional experience and expertise,” said David S. Kosson, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“Having served both as the DOE manager for cleanup at Oak Ridge, and as Acting Assistant Secretary for the EM – a $6 billion per year program – Sue provides unprecedented insights to the academic community and ability to engage students with the national challenge of providing environmental safety from the legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons production,” Kosson said.

Vanderbilt is uniquely positioned for Cange’s work. The multi-university Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP), which serves as a technical and scientific advisor to DOE, is managed by Vanderbilt through a longstanding cooperative agreement with the energy agency. Kosson, whose own research focuses on management of nuclear and chemical wastes, is director.

CRESP advances cost-effective, risk-based cleanup and management of U.S. nuclear weapons production sites. Education and providing a foundation for the next generation of nuclear waste management professionals is part of its mission.

Construction of a waste treatment plant at the Hanford Site near the Columbia River in Washington.

While at Vanderbilt, Cange also will develop and deliver undergraduate seminars on career opportunities in government service and environmental cleanup of federal facilities. She’s already given five lectures for undergraduate and graduate students and delivered a departmental seminar on environmental management.  Also, Cange is developing a spring semester seminar for graduate and upper-class undergraduates Leadership Skills for Technical Personnel. She will co-teach the seminar with a former TVA executive.

Doug Adams, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department, said Cange’s talks have been well received.

“Sue has described her extraordinary professional journey and the positive impact she has made on the national environmental engineering landscape,” he said. “The questions from our first-year students have revealed just how engaged they are to learn about the work Sue does in public service, her exciting career in engineering leadership, and the exciting careers that await them.”

Government service needs to be seen as a viable career option for engineering graduates, Cange said. Not only is it a way to “give back,” but it addresses a national priority with significant impact.

“It is very important work,” said Cange, “It is an important obligation we have to these communities.”

At the current funding level of $6.5 billion a year, cleanup of the final 16 sites in 11 states, including Tennessee, will take at least another 70 years, Cange said.

“It is really challenging work,” she said. “You won’t be bored.”

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