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U.S. Increasingly Looks to UT to Answer Nuclear Security Challenge

One of the highest priorities for both national and international security organizations is facing the threat of a nuclear disaster due to radioactive materials falling into the wrong hands.

The need to anticipate and answer the possible challenges in such scenarios is a key part of some of the research being conducted in the Tickle College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

In fact, that work has placed UT on the front line of global security, with the Departments of Nuclear Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science combining for nearly $10 million in research awards in the area of nuclear security in just the past couple of years.

Related: UT’s Radiation Instrumentation Interdisciplinary Graduate Education program 

“We have seen a tremendous amount of growth in research in recent years,” said Wes Hines, head of the nuclear engineering department. “In addition to the work itself, we’ve also been able to attract some of the brightest minds in nuclear engineering, both in faculty and in students.”

“The support from agencies plays a big part in that.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration has been one of UT’s biggest benefactors.

Housed in the U.S. Department of Energy, the NNSA was founded in 2000 to focus on counterterrorism, nuclear stockpile oversight and security, and nonproliferation, all of which play into UT’s strengths.

That became most evident with last year’s announcement of the NNSA-backed Nuclear Science and Engineering Nonproliferation Research Consortium, with $4.25 million coming to UT.

Those funds provide benefits across the college, with support for research conducted by joint UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Global Nuclear Security Howard Hall, nuclear engineering’s UCOR Fellow and Associate Professor Jason Hayward and Assistant Professor Eric Lukosi, Director of the Scintillation Materials Research Center Chuck Melcher, and Assistant Professor Mariya Zhuravleva of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s Academic Research Initiative has also greatly benefited the college.

In 2016, the DNDO funded separate projects by Hayward and nuclear engineering Assistant Professor Eric Lukosi to the tune of $1.75 million each.  Hayward and Lukosi both received new ARI grants in 2015 as well with Hayward as principal investigator and Lukosi as co-principal investigator. Co-PIs for the two new programs are also from the college: Professor and James W. McConnell Fellow Jens Gregor from electrical engineering and computer science, and Associate Professor Bin Hu and Research Associate Mahshid Ahmadi from materials science and engineering.

Along with other active projects throughout the two departments, DNDO funding accounts for $8.75 million in the college.

Other currently supported principal or co-principal investigators include Hall and Assistant Professor Maik Lang from nuclear engineering, Melcher and Zhuravleva from materials science, and Gonzalez Family Endowed Professor Hairong Qi from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

All of that contributes to make UT, along with its collaborators at ORNL, a key player in the world’s nuclear security.

“The research areas for all of these grants are in the areas of radiation detection materials and systems, and in nuclear chemistry and forensics,” said Hayward. “These areas are critical elements in the safeguarding of nuclear materials and stockpiles.”

Hayward pointed out that the complex nature of the problems UT researchers are tackling require multidisciplinary approaches in engineering.

To that end, he noted that the college is beginning to put together a multidisciplinary curriculum in order to train Ph.D. students in these different areas.

For example, Hayward’s last two DNDO grants have funded the initial development of the Radiation Instrumentation Interdisciplinary Graduate Education program.

It’s just the latest growth in an area of increasing expertise for UT.

Four of the 15 joint UT-ORNL Governor’s Chairs do work related to nuclear research, while the nuclear engineering department itself has seen rapid growth in the number of faculty as well as in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, where it has gained standing as one of the top public nuclear engineering departments in the country.

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Contact

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)

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