Nuclear detectives: Penn State awarded $1.8 million grant from Department of Defense

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The United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the Department of Defense, has awarded the Penn State Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering a $1.8 million grant to further the fundamental data for nuclear forensics.

Through this research, the U.S. will be better equipped to respond to a nuclear attack. If a nuclear weapon is ever discovered or detonated, officials will need to quickly determine its origins to identify the threat actors.

"We are going to help the DoD play nuclear detectives," said Marek Flaska, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and the principal investigator of the project. "Each time you examine a special nuclear material — uranium or plutonium — you'll see a unique signature."

The current gaps in nuclear data knowledge prevent to accurate determination of where the material was manufactured.

As DTRA furthers its mission to develop technologies against biological, chemical and nuclear threats, Flaska and his team will provide this missing fundamental data. By measuring more than 70 short-lived fission fragments within the materials used to create nuclear weapons, their work will enhance the national response in the face of a nuclear detonation.

"When this research is completed, we'll be able to look closely at the composition of samples collected after an explosion and see where the weapon was made, what country, and in some cases, even which facility," he said.

The efforts of his co-investigators, Bruce D. Pierson, a staff scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Amanda Johnsen, a research associate at the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center, will complement the breadth of Flaska's findings.

"Their work will be immensely important for the project," said Flaska. "Dr. Pierson will characterize various materials of interest with 14-MeV neutrons from the PNNL's D-T neutron generator, and Dr. Johnsen will support the project through her expertise in radiochemistry, by preparing high-quality samples for the experiments."

The grant will also support a full time graduate student, Marc Wonders, a doctoral student studying nuclear engineering and advised by Flaska.

Penn State, one of the few U.S. universities with an on-campus nuclear reactor, is distinctively prepared to spearhead this research.

"We have a very unique, fast-neutron spectrum available at the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor that actually resembles an expected nuclear weapon energy spectrum," said Flaska.

Within the context of this project, it means Flaska and his team are able to simulate the expected neutron-energy parameters of a nuclear explosion — without an actual explosion — and analyze the materials of interest under realistic conditions.

"Without our nuclear reactor, this project wouldn't be possible," said Flaska. "This research will be greatly leveraging the facilities we have access to at Penn State."

Beyond the DTRA's critical applications in identifying the origins of a nuclear weapon, this research also has the potential for greater impacts.

"I'm a nuclear engineer, so by definition, my research is applied," he said. "What greatly interests me about this project is it's really exploring and expanding the fundamental knowledge in nuclear science. In addition, the data acquired during the project will be important for many other applications, including existing and novel research and commercial nuclear reactors, nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear safeguards."

The Penn State Breazeale Reactor received the first university research reactor license in 1955 issued by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The PSBR was built immediately after President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiatives to launch an education and research program for domestic and international scientist and engineers in nuclear technology.

The Radiation Science & Engineering Center was established to manage Penn State's comprehensive nuclear research facilities, including the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, Gamma Irradiation Facility, Radioactive sources and Radiation measurement resources. The RSEC provides safe nuclear analytical and testing facilities in support of the research and education activities of faculty, staff, and students at Penn State as well as to scientists in universities, governments, and industries worldwide. The RSEC facilities, most of which are housed in the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor Building, are some of the most unique and flexible in the country.

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A'ndrea Elyse Messer
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