Agency awards grant for developing nuclear security expertise

By Rachel Oswald

June 10, 2011

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration on Thursday announced it would give $25 million to a consortium of universities to provide hands-on training and research opportunities to the nation's next generation of nuclear security specialists.

The University of California (Berkeley) was selected to lead a group of universities in several states in the creation of the National Science and Security Consortium.

The five-year grant is to be used primarily to provide financial aid to graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and some undergraduate students interested in pursuing work on nuclear nonproliferation and security. Funds will also be used to expand the laboratories of participating universities.

The group intends to emphasize training in nuclear physics, nuclear and radiation chemistry, nuclear engineering, nuclear instrumentation and public policy, according to an NNSA press release.

"If we don't keep a vital pipeline of talent coming into our [national] laboratories and more importantly if we don't excite a new generation about the importance of working on nuclear security and nuclear nonproliferation issues then it doesn't matter how beautiful our facilities are. We will not be able to do the work that must be done," NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Anne Harrington said at a Washington press conference.

The consortium is to prepare a series of technical conferences and summer programs on key nuclear security issues. Instruction is to be paired with research opportunities that would provide participants "experience with firsthand theoretical and experimental techniques," according to the NNSA release.

Involvement in the program is likely to lead to work at the U.S. national laboratories on nuclear security operations, the release says.

Harrington said NNSA officials hope to see a total of 230 graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and undergraduates go through the program over the next five years.

University of California (Berkeley) Nuclear Engineering Department Chairman Per Peterson told reporters that in recent years he has seen a significant uptick in the number of students interested in fields associated with nuclear stockpile maintenance, nuclear security and nuclear nonproliferation.

"We've been seeing just fantastic people applying into the field, particularly into graduate studies. These are extraordinarily bright people. We end up being very selective," Peterson said.

Peterson said he believes the heightened student interest is due to increased understanding in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the September 11 attacks of the need to secure nuclear systems against potential attacks and to ensure that terrorists are unable to acquire weapon-related materials.

"They believe this is a field, this is an area where they can do work that will make a real difference for the future of the world," the Berkeley professor said of the incoming crop of nuclear security scientists.

Along with Berkeley, the participating schools are Washington University in St. Louis; the University of Nevada (Las Vegas); Michigan State University; University of California branches at Irvine and Davis; and the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation in San Diego.

More than 100 scientists from universities in the consortium have signed on to participate. Peterson said public policy experts would also be involved, as would the Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.

The program could include participation from NNSA staff with experience working at U.S. embassies who would introduce students to some of the international dynamics related to nonproliferation, Harrington said.

"By coordinating the efforts of multiple universities, by creating the strong linkages with world class national laboratories, these students will have opportunity to gain a much broader interdisciplinary perspective of … why it is their research matters and what it is it's going to be able to do," Peterson said, adding that the chance to use the resources of the national laboratories would be great exposure for students.

The development of new nuclear forensics capabilities is one area that the consortium is likely to emphasize, according to Harrington. Forensics involves a wide range of sciences and advanced technology used to trace the origins of a sample of radioactive material following an interdiction or possible attack.

"We can explore things like geological watermarking," she said. "We can explore different ways of developing databases and controlling databases on things like uranium ore concentrate and that could potentially develop breakthroughs."

"This is a really exciting, very open area and certainly a place where some innovation would be very welcome," Harrington added.

By Rachel Oswald

June 10, 2011