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The Prague Connection

UTNE Fosters Learning Through Cultural Immersion

Kalie Knecht at a desk.

Kalie Knecht brings the VR-1 reactor to critical.

During the 2018 summer mini-term, twelve undergraduate students from UT’s Nuclear Engineering department participated in the sixth year of a study abroad class called Experimental Reactor Physics Laboratory (NE427). Led by Research Assistant Professor Ondřej Chvála, the course takes students to Prague, Czech Republic, and Vienna, Austria.

The students spent the first week visiting Bukov, a former uranium mine that is now used for geological repository research; Temelín, a Czech nuclear power plant; the research institute in Řež near Prague; and the Prague Castle. In Vienna, they visited the Belvedere Palace, United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Preparatory Organization, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

During the second week, students worked with VR-1, a nuclear reactor at the Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU), performing reactor physics related measurements and working out respective lab reports. On the last day of the labs, each student got a chance to operate the reactor.

“The study abroad laboratory aims to integrate nuclear reactor topics ranging from operation, systems, safety, and core physics in an experience-based learning environment,” said Chvála. “Past students commented that ‘it finally clicked together,’ referring to our undergraduate curriculum, at the end of the program. Additionally, students are introduced to international safeguards of nuclear materials, a necessity for global success of domestic advanced nuclear power systems.”

Senior Kalie Knecht said that the study abroad experience, and specifically working with the VR-1 reactor, was one of her favorite experiences in the past few years.

As someone who has worked at nuclear facilities in the United States, it was interesting to see some of these facilities abroad. I also got to bring the VR-1 reactor to critical during one of our labs—something that not a lot of undergraduate nuclear engineering students can say.”

—Kalie Knecht

She also enjoyed her visit to the United Nations, where the class attended talks by IAEA representatives and the Treaty Organization.

“This experience exposed me to a whole new world of jobs that I was previously only aware of in my periphery,” she added. “Prior to this I thought that most of the jobs associated with nuclear security required a policy background. I was not aware of the value I could bring to the table as a technical worker. This trip to the IAEA inspired me to pursue detection for nuclear nonproliferation applications for my graduate studies.” In fact, one day she hopes to return to Vienna and work for the IAEA.

Jan Frybort, Lenka Frybortova, their two children, plus Professors Maldonado and Chvála, and Ondřej Novak.

The family team of Jan Frybort and Lenka Frybortova and their two children, with Professors Maldonado and Chvála, and Ondřej Novak.

In addition to traveling and coordinating the trip, Chvála also hosts visiting researchers from Prague on Rocky Top. Doctoral student Ondřej Novák recently completed a six-month Fulbright Fellowship appointment with the department.

This appointment was facilitated by an ongoing collaboration between CTU and researchers at UTNE with Chvála and Professor Ivan Maldonado. Novák’s appointment follows the recent appointment of Jan Frýbort and Lenka Frýbortová, professors from CTU, who also spent six months in Knoxville as part of their professional development.

In addition to a number of computational studies carried out by Novák, including some leading to multiple journal paper submissions in computational reactor physics, he also embraced the cultural immersion within a typical US university.

“The success of these international collaborations hinge upon local contacts,” said Maldonado. “If it were not for Dr. Ondřej Chvála, none of these collaborations or our study abroad program would have ever been initiated.”