NC State’s nuclear engineers will lead new nonproliferation consortium
Since May 2004, a federal agency tasked with securing vulnerable radioactive material around the world has removed or verified the removal of more than 4,100 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
That’s enough material for 165 nuclear weapons, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation R&D.
This so-called Special Nuclear Material (SNM) is scattered all over the planet. It’s dangerous — and plentiful.
Keeping this material out of the wrong hands is an important effort that will now be helped by a new nonproliferation consortium being led by faculty in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at NC State.
The Consortium for Nonproliferation Enabling Capabilities (CNEC) will set the stage for research on the next generation of methods and tools to detect, locate, identify, and characterize SNM while also training future scientists and engineers to take up the nonproliferation effort in the coming decades.
The $25 million award from the NNSA Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation R&D to fund CNEC is the largest research award in the Department of Nuclear Engineering’s history.
The consortium’s four focus areas are: identify and exploit signatures and observables associated with SNM production, storage and movement; develop simulation analysis and modeling methods to identify and characterize SNM and facilities processing it; apply multi-source data fusion and analytic techniques to detect nuclear proliferation activities; and develop viable replacements for potentially dangerous industrial and medical radiological sources.
CNEC’s principal goal is for faculty to train students to be leaders in the nonproliferation field. To that end, a new CNEC fellowship program will be developed to attract nationally ranked graduate students in nuclear science and engineering. NC State will begin offering a new certificate program in the policy and technology of nuclear nonproliferation for engineering, science and nuclear science students. The consortium will provide a broad array of opportunities for NC State students across disciplines, including new courses and course materials, laboratory experiments, and opportunities to work with and be mentored by scientists at national laboratories.
NC State will partner with the University of Michigan, Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, Kansas State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, North Carolina A&T State University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
A multidisciplinary team will be involved in the work at NC State. Nuclear engineering professor and department head Dr. Yousry Azmy will direct the effort. Dr. Robin Gardner and Dr. John Mattingly, faculty in the department, are co-principal investigators on the project, with Gardner serving as the consortium’s chief scientist.
“For NC State to be selected to lead this vital national effort is a testament to our great faculty and strong leadership in nuclear engineering,” said NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson. “NC State is increasingly recognized as the university of choice for government and industry partners who want to collaborate with world-leading faculty and students to solve some of our nation’s biggest challenges.”
Tapping the Power of Universities
The multidisciplinary NC State team behind CNEC includes faculty from the departments of Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Statistics, Mathematics and Political Science.
Their expertise will shape the initiative’s work on nonproliferation science and technology and create methods to mine data from a wide range of sources.
Using radiation detection equipment has long been the primary way to track the production and movement of SNM.
Along with work on new detection equipment and optimizing the capabilities of existing measurement devices, CNEC researchers will work to further the use of other kinds of data. That could mean satellite images or shipping manifests. It could mean tracking the sale of certain kinds of materials and components used in uranium centrifuges.
The University of Michigan is the lead university on the Consortium for Verification Technology, also announced by NNSA this spring, that will work on nuclear treaty-compliance monitoring. NC State is one of 13 institutions involved in that project with Mattingly serving as principal investigator on NC State’s portion of the project.
A New Direction
CNEC represents another big step forward for NC State’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, home of the world’s first non-governmental university-based nuclear reactor.
The department is already the lead university partner in the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors, or CASL as it is widely known, an effort to design the next generation of nuclear reactors and improve the ones online today.
One of Azmy’s goals when he became department head in 2008 was to grow the department’s work on nuclear security to complement its strong work on reactors and other nuclear research areas.
To that end, he hired Mattingly, a veteran of two national laboratories with extensive experience in nuclear security. Azmy thinks that having Mattingly and Gardner, who boasts decades of research in radiation detection, helping assemble a team and selecting research areas to focus on was one of the factors that helped NC State’s proposal beat out 22 others to land CNEC and play its lead role.
In the near term, leading the consortium will mean new faculty and postdoctoral research positions for the department, along with more graduate students and undergraduate interns. It will also position NC State’s nuclear engineering program as a national leader in a research area that couldn’t be more timely and important.
“The work that they will produce will establish NC State as a prime academic site for innovative research and education designed to advance the case for global nuclear security,” Azmy said. “As our prestige in this area solidifies and grows, our faculty and students will have ample opportunity to contribute generously to our nation’s, perhaps even the world’s, safe and prosperous future.”
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