Hoping to improve global security, UT launches Radiochemistry Center

KNOXVILLE—Hypothetical scenario: A nuclear bomb is detonated in one of America’s most populated cities. Just as at a crime scene, the officials need to find the culprit.

Currently, the process of analyzing weapons debris to understand the performance or design of the device is painstakingly slow. But new research to be conducted at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville seeks to improve radiochemistry and nuclear forensics to enhance global security.

The new Radiochemistry Center of Excellence is being established through a $1.2 million grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration for the first year, with the potential for a total of $6 million for five years. The center will focus on research and education to advance UT and NNSA laboratories such as the nearby Y-12 National Security Complex, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The center will begin operating immediately.

The program will educate new students in radiochemistry, a critical field that has been shrinking in academia for years, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

“Radiochemistry is perhaps the most important means of understanding nuclear explosions after the fact,” said Howard Hall, principal investigator for the new center and UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Nuclear Security. “Through radiochemical analysis, we can determine the fuel type, the performance of the device, and perhaps even the non-nuclear materials associated with the device. Radiochemistry is the core of nuclear forensics, telling us what kind of weapon it was and where it came from. In such an event, we need to know who might have done it and, equally importantly, who didn’t do it.”

NNSA lab staff will have the opportunity to serve as adjunct professors at UT and students will also partner on projects at national labs.

“The center’s work in radiochemical separations will seek to accelerate the process of chemically separating isotopes in bomb debris, potentially providing the nation with the answer to ‘who did it?’ much quicker,” Hall said. “The work will also improve our understanding of the physics of nuclear weapons.”

Students will collaborate with the UT Medical Center to use PET scan technology to better understand how materials flow in turbulent conditions, which is important to nuclear detonation physics. The center’s research will also support the United States’ ability to certify that U.S. nuclear weapons are safe and reliable without nuclear testing.

The center will be housed within the UT Institute for Nuclear Security, which is part of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. Faculty members involved include Hall; Nuclear Engineering faculty members Arthur Ruggles and Lawrence Heilbronn; Brian Wirth, Governor’s Chair for Computational Nuclear Engineering; Pete Counce in Chemical Engineering; and Kurt Sickafus, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

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