UCF is one of 16 universities in the U.S. that have formed a consortium on nuclear forensics. The association is supported by a $25 million cooperative agreement with the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The goal of the consortium is to engage in research that supports the NNSA’s nuclear security and nonproliferation missions while building a next-generation workforce of nuclear scientists, engineers and researchers. The University of Florida leads the group, which is also comprised of seven national laboratories including Sandia, Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley and Oak Ridge.
“The role of universities for nuclear forensics research is to innovate and develop some of the most challenging and fundamental aspects of new technology and methods,” says Keith McManus, the university program manager for defense nuclear nonproliferation research and development at NNSA, in a release. “Once these basic aspects have been proven at the university level, the Department of Energy’s national laboratories can fulfill their unique role to perform mission-specific research and development that improves on capabilities for adoption by operational enterprises.”
This is the first NNSA consortium that UCF has joined. Two faculty members — Professor Subith Vasu of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Assistant Professor Vasileios Anagnostopoulos of the Department of Chemistry — lead the charge for the university. They will work with researchers from other universities in the consortium, including Notre Dame, Clemson and Texas A&M, to address gaps and challenges within different aspects of nuclear forensics research.
“As a member of the consortium, we’ll be conducting research on different aspects of nuclear forensics,” Vasu says. “For example, when you have a nuclear detonation, how do the fireballs interact with the materials and what residuals does it leave?”
Other questions the team will seek to answer include how to determine what materials were used in a nuclear weapon after it’s been detonated, and how to detect a nuclear weapon or materials that may have been smuggled into the country. Vasu says this type of research has renewed relevance due to the war in Ukraine and public interest in whether or not Russia would resort to the use of nuclear weapons.
A separate challenge the NNSA aims to address is the dwindling nuclear forensics workforce. Vasu says that many researchers in this area started their careers in the 1960s and 1970s and are now headed into retirement. Through the consortium, the NNSA can build a pipeline of young professionals who have experience in nuclear forensics.
“Students will do research, have internship opportunities, and when they graduate, they can be employed by the NNSA labs,” Vasu says. “It builds a pipeline for these labs and it’s also very prestigious for students to go work at a national laboratory.”
For UCF, being included in the consortium is an impressive feat. Out of the 16 universities, UCF is the only one without a dedicated nuclear forensics degree program, department or research lab. Vasu says this speaks to the strength of UCF’s reputation for research.
“UCF has been working in this area for several years now, with research in aerospace, computer science and chemistry that can support our future work in nuclear forensics,” he says. “It’s possible that this work could lead to a nuclear forensics program at UCF since we already have the base to create it.”
Vasu joined UCF in 2012 as an assistant professor, and prior to that, worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Sandia National Laboratory. He is a member of the Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research at UCF, is an associate fellow of the American Institute of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of the International Energy Agency’s Task Team on Energy. He has ongoing projects with several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, among others.
Anagnostopoulos joined UCF in 2018 as an assistant professor and currently runs the Environmental Radiochemistry Research Group within the Department of Chemistry. His research focuses on the fate and retention-release cycles of contaminants as well as nuclear fuel disposal.