NNSA renews university consortium grant for research and development into nuclear science, engineering, and security

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Article found here: https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-renews-university-consortium-grant-research-and-development-nuclear-science

$25 million will go to group led by University of California, Berkeley

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) announced a $25 million grant to a University of California, Berkeley-led consortium of 11 universities for research and development (R&D) in nuclear science, engineering, and security.  This long-term investment will support the consortium at $5 million per year for five years. The grant, awarded for the third time to a Berkeley-led consortium, followed the announcement of a funding opportunity issued in April 2020.

The mission of the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium is to train the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers, while engaging in R&D spanning basic aspects of new technology and methods to programmatic work directly supporting the NNSA’s nuclear security and nonproliferation missions.

Nuclear Science and Security Consortium fellows from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Nuclear Science and Security Consortium fellows from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, prepare an experiment

“A strong pipeline of new technical talent for our laboratories is critical to our mission of supporting U.S. national security objectives in reducing global nuclear security threats,” said Kasia Mendelsohn, Acting Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at NNSA.  “Over the past decade, nearly 500 degrees have been awarded through our three university consortia, resulting in more than 140 new career placements at the national laboratories.  I am confident the Berkeley-led team will build on their past success and continue to produce an effective return on agency investment.”

The other consortium member institutions include:

  • Air Force Institute of Technology
  • George Washington University
  • Michigan State University
  • North Carolina State University
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of California, Davis
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • University of New Mexico
  • University of Tennessee, Knoxville

These 11 universities partner with five national laboratories: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories.

Doctoral student Emily Frame at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Doctoral student Emily Frame at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The consortium will carry out R&D in five research focus areas: nuclear physics and nuclear data; radiochemistry and nuclear chemistry; nuclear material science; radiation detection; nuclear chemical engineering and nuclear engineering.  Linking these research areas are two crosscutting efforts: computing and optimization in nuclear applications; and education in nuclear science, technology, and policy.

This structure provides a clear pathway for collaborative R&D with DOE’s National Laboratories supporting a range of research areas in both fundamental and applied nuclear science and engineering.  It also facilitates the exchange of ideas and technologies between consortium partners and develops trained personnel across a range of disciplines.

The direct outcome of this program is the development of professionals with skill-sets to support foundational disciplines of nuclear physics, science and engineering, radiation detection, nuclear material science, radiochemistry, and mass spectrometry.

These professionals will have career opportunities as scientists, engineers, technicians, operational personnel, and intelligence professionals, among others.  In those positions, the individuals will have the opportunity to contribute to nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear arms control, nuclear incident response, nuclear intelligence activities, nuclear energy, and other nuclear-related fields.  As they do so, these professionals are expected to benefit academia, private industry, and several U.S. government agencies, including the Departments of Energy, State, Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice, as well as the Intelligence Community.


NSSC Fellow Mark Straub makes the cover of Analytical Chemistry

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In 2017, radiochemistry graduate student Mark Straub left the comfortable academic environs of UC Berkeley to move to the middle of New Mexico, where he would spend his summer vacation working full time at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the birthplace of the Manhattan Project. There, Straub teamed up with LANL scientists Jaqueline Kiplinger and Julianna Fessenden to study the impact and evolution of nuclear forensics, a process in which nuclear material can be examined to determine its source and history.

Straub’s dedication to this project continued following the completion of his summer internship, spurring a multi-year collaborative effort between UC Berkeley and LANL. With his advisor, Prof. John Arnold, and his LANL mentors, Straub prepared a review article, “Recent Advances in Nuclear Forensic Chemistry”, will be featured as the cover article in a special issue of Analytical Chemistry next month.  

Above: Mark Straub at work in the Chemistry Lab. 

Nuclear forensics research is critical to national security, as rapid chemical analysis of seized radioactive material is imperative to prevent the construction and detonation of an illicit nuclear weapon.  Within the past decade, advancements in chemistry and nanoscience have revolutionized the capabilities accessible to nuclear forensic chemists, enabling complex analysis of samples that would previously be considered undetectable.  New case studies using fallout from the Trinity Test Site and the Hiroshima detonation site have redefined the paradigm for real-world nuclear forensic analysis, and specialized materials have been synthesized as fallout surrogates and radionuclide traps.  This review of nuclear forensics highlights new compounds and materials, recent case studies, and state-of-the-art capabilities for pre- and post-detonation nuclear forensics and environmental monitoring within the last ten years.  

This project began at the NSSC-LANL Robert Keepin Nonproliferation Science Summer Program, where Mark spent the summer interviewing experts in nuclear forensics and touring the laboratory facilities where this research takes place. This summer program is a component of the prestigious Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (NSSC) fellowship, an opportunity made available by the National Nuclear Security Administration through a $25M award to UC Berkeley. The NSSC, led by Prof. Jasmina Vujic in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, trains the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers while engaging in research and development that supports the nation’s nuclear security and nonproliferation mission. All NSSC fellows are connected with a mentor at a US DOE National Laboratory that the students work with throughout their academic careers. The NSSC also organizes summer programs and projects that allow students to work on-site at the National Laboratories. With continued support from the NSSC, the authors included perspectives on nuclear forensics from academic researchers, government scientists, and nuclear policy specialists. 

As nuclear globalization increases, the field of nuclear forensics will become an increasingly critical component of national security. These UC Berkeley and LANL scientists continue to contribute to advances in this field, with multiple projects in nuclear forensics and actinide chemistry.  Mark Straub’s doctoral research focuses on developing new molecules and nanomaterials for nuclear forensics and energy applications, and Prof. John Arnold leads the NSSC program in radiochemistry, with dozens of publications in actinide chemistry.  Jaqueline Kiplinger studies molecular transformations of the actinide elements, investigating new processes for catalysis and nuclear forensics. Julianna Fessenden is the United States leader for device assessment post-detonation forensics, a prestigious post. These scientists are devoted to making new advances in this important area of research. To learn more about this exciting field, read “Recent Advances in Nuclear Forensic Chemistry” here


NSSC Fellow Jake Tibbetts is the winner of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ 2020 Leonard M. Rieser Award

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Jake Tibbetts, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, is the recipient of the prestigious Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ 2020 Leonard M. Rieser Award. Tibbetts received this award for his article “Keeping classified information secret in a world of quantum computing,” published in the Bulletin on February 11, 2020.  The article was selected from the Bulletin’s “Voices of Tomorrow” column, which features the writing of rising experts in topics including nuclear risk and disruptive technologies. 

Tibbetts is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at UC Berkeley, where he is studying electrical engineering and computer science. He is a fellow at the NNSA-supported Nuclear Science and Security Consortium, and has previously worked as a research assistant at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. During his time at UC Berkeley, Tibbetts has made contributions to the Nuclear Policy Working Group and the Project on Nuclear Gaming. In the latter, he was involved in the creation of “SIGNAL,” an online three-player experimental wargame in which three countries, some armed with nuclear weapons, attempt to achieve national goals through diplomatic and military means. Tibbetts received undergraduate degrees from UC Berkeley in EECS and Global Studies in May 2020.

From the Bulletin: “In his piece, Jake Tibbetts accomplished the kind of deep, thoughtful, and well-crafted journalism that is the Bulletin’s hallmark,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor in chief John Mecklin said. “Quantum computing is a complex field; many articles about it are full of strange exaggerations and tangled prose. Tibbetts’ piece, on the other hand, is an exemplar of clarity and precision and genuinely worthy of the Rieser Award.” 

The Rieser Award is the capstone of the Bulletin’s Next Generation Program, created to ensure that new voices, steeped in science and public policy, have a trusted platform from which to address existential challenges. It is named for physicist Leonard M. Rieser (1922-1998), board chair at the Bulletin from 1984 until his death in 1998.”

Congratulations Jake!

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