VCU mechanical engineering undergrad follows an unexpected blueprint for summer

Alyssa Cadua contributes to a nuclear plant’s digitization project, with VCU’s Internship Funding Program helping her seize the opportunity.

Alyssa Cadua, a mechanical engineering major, has a nuclear engineering internship with Dominion Energy
Alyssa Cadua, a mechanical engineering major, has a nuclear engineering internship with Dominion Energy this summer. (Contributed photo)

By James Shea

Alyssa Cadua had not thought about a career in nuclear energy. As a mechanical engineering major in Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering, she assumed she lacked the necessary skills.

But this past fall, during her junior year, Cadua took a professional development class at which employers outlined opportunities for students. Dominion Energy was a participant, and its nuclear engineering internship sounded interesting.

“I applied, because I figured it didn’t hurt,” Cadua said.

The rigorous application process, including a two-hour interview, led to an offer – and a potential challenge. While the internship was paid, it was based in Richmond, which meant summer living expenses. Cadua usually lived at home in Suffolk, Virginia, during summers, generating income and savings as a server.

To help seize the opportunity, Cadua is getting support from VCU’s Internship Funding Program, which in its second year has awarded nearly $300,000 in scholarships to help students defray expenses associated with summer internships.

“I am so grateful for the funding,” Cadua said. “It has helped me so much. I’m not sure I could have done this without the money.”

She started the internship in June, working mostly from Dominion’s Glen Allen office on a project for the North Anna Power Station in Louisa County: digitizing its piping blueprints. The pipes carry steam and water throughout the nuclear plant.

“I started off by taking these really old drawings and having to update them,” Cadua said. “I have to figure out the dimensions of the pipe. That was the first step – figuring out how long the pipes are from the original blueprint. The next step was to go down to the North Anna Power Station and actually take a look at the pipes and measure them. I have to make sure the dimensions are accurate and make sure nothing has changed.”

In addition to her research ensuring the accuracy of new digitized blueprints, Cadua documented any corrosion within the pipes. “The end goal is to test them and make sure they are still safe and make sure they have not corroded from the steam or water,” she said.

Cadua considers herself environmentally focused but had thought primarily of wind and solar as green energy options. She said the internship has been fascinating in part because she now sees that safely produced nuclear power could be among energy solutions.

And at ground level, Cadua has seen the intense power and strength of the nuclear plant. She had no idea how much energy it can produce.

“It was really, really hot and huge,” Cadua said. “You can feel how much power is being generated. The ground is shaking, and the pipes are huge.”

In August, Cadua will turn her attention to her senior year at VCU, with some lasting insights gleaned from her summer internship. Among them: applying and interviewing for a professional job and experiencing work within a large corporation.

“It’s been cool but challenging, especially being so young,” Cadua said. “You have to pay attention to how you are speaking to people. You have to be more formal than you might be normally.”

The internship also broadened her view of the type of work that can match her mechanical engineering background. She might even consider a career in nuclear power, and though she has not discussed specific opportunities with Dominion, she is grateful for the summer experience.

“This has definitely made me more confident,” Cadua said. “I feel so much more confident that I will be able to get a job after graduation, and I will be more qualified when I do get a job.”