UC Berkeley-led consortium receives grant to research nuclear energy, security

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A UC Berkeley-led consortium of eight universities will reinvigorate the phrase “knowledge is power” after receiving a $25 million grant to research nuclear energy and security, intended to attract young scholars to the field.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, announced the grant Jan. 25 to the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium, or NSSC, to be doled out in $5 million increments over the course of five years, starting in the 2016 fiscal year.

The consortium will also partner with five national laboratories to conduct research and development in four technical areas — nuclear and particle physics, radiochemistry and forensics, nuclear engineering, and nuclear instrumentation and radiation detection — and introduce the work to students pursuing degrees at all levels.

“The overall goal for the NNSA is to bring smart, young students into the labs,” said Stephan Friedrich, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is collaborating with the consortium. “The best way to do this is to let students work on cool science projects that are of interest for both academics and the national labs.”

In 2011, the NSSC won a similar five-year grant from the NNSA for the same amount. The NNSA funded the consortium in order to meet objectives established by Congress’ Integrated University Program, which supports multi-year research projects critical to the field of nuclear science and engineering.

According to Jasmina Vujic, program director for the NSSC, the current consortium has funded more than 350 degree-seeking students since 2011, and about 40 doctoral students found “full-time positions at full-time laboratories” after graduating.

Friedrich said one of the larger goals of the NSSC is to combat the net loss of scientists in nuclear science laboratories. The program incentivizes students to work in national laboratories by allowing them to use laboratory machinery for their projects and giving them exposure to more practical applications of their research.

“For academics, the interest is that they get access to all the cool toys here — nuclear reactors, cyclotron at Berkeley,” Friedrich said. “They’re too big to be operated by the university, but you can do very good science with them.”

The program also seeks to involve humanities and social sciences students in the field, according to Vujic, who noted that it is important for national policymakers to be “at least knowledgeable” in nuclear science, given the low number of scientists and engineers in Congress.

Additionally, all students involved with the project are required to take a two-week nuclear security policy course discussing with high-level officials international topics related to nuclear energy, offering students from various backgrounds an interdisciplinary approach to nonproliferation issues, such as nuclear materials detection and international diplomacy.

“From our point of view, if we could train and educate students in basic sciences, then whatever is out there in 10 or 15 years, they could do that,” Vujic said.

Kimberly Nielsen covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].