The nuclear field wasn't originally Tara Ulitchney's calling. Tara always wanted to be a psychiatrist. She was fascinated by psychology and after graduating from the Northwest School District in 2002, she pursued her ambition by enrolling in Wilkes University. After finishing her degree, Tara supplemented her education before going to medical school by taking evening classes at Luzerne County Community College.
She asked her father for advice on courses to take at LCCC. Tara had always excelled in math and science and was debating on taking a second organic chemistry course, when her father suggested taking one of the new nuclear engineering technology courses. LCCC had just restarted the nuclear engineering technology program that year in 2006. She enrolled in the reactor core fundamentals course and was immediately hooked.
"I loved it and wanted to do this for a living," Tara says. "Life led me in a different direction. I am very happy in this field."
Luzerne County Community College's AAS degree program in Nuclear Engineering Technology is designed to provide technically-trained personnel to support the nuclear power industry. The curriculum prepares students for employment as technicians in reactor operations, health physics and instrumentation and control. It also prepares students for employment as maintenance technicians in a manufacturing or production facility.
Graduates of the NET program who have successfully met all of the degree requirements are wellpositioned for available jobs in the nuclear industry at facilities like Talen Energy.
"LCCC's Nuclear Engineering Technology program prepared me well for this career," she says. "Atomic and nuclear physics and reactor core fundamentals were my favorite courses. The instructors were very knowledgeable, and presented the materials in a way that was very interesting. They worked in the field and really explained the conditions and stresses of the job."
Tara's brother, Brandon followed in his sister's footsteps and also completed his NET degree at LCCC.
A reactor operator is responsible for the day-to-day safe operation of the facility and the associated turbine generating equipment.
Tara carefully controls and monitors the nuclear reactor and related systems, all following standard and national procedures. She also implements operational procedures, such as those controlling start-up or shut-down activities and dispatches orders or instructions to personnel through radiotelephone or intercommunication systems to coordinate auxiliary equipment operation.
"My first priority is to keep the public safe," Tara states. "I test equipment, monitor statuses of the equipment, and along with my peers and supervisors, determine the best way to resolve any issues. You need to have a strong grasp on science, mechanical physics, and electronics and how they each affect each other." Tara feels operators also should have a "Type A" personality to constantly be on their game and have great attention to detail. "And although everyone in the plant has their own expertise and niche," she adds, "operators need to have a vast array of knowledge in order to always understand the state of the plant."
Nuclear control operators need to demonstrate the ability to work under pressure and show a passion for their work. "In nuclear these skills are a must," Tara states. "You are responsible for the equipment. It requires a proactive and persistent drive for improvement to maintain equipment at top notch."
Tara is the only licensed female reactor operator and wants women thinking of entering this field not to be intimidated. "We work as a team here, and support our extended nuclear family. If you have interest in math and science, this is a great, financially rewarding field."