UMN participating in national nuclear stewardship research

The University is taking part in a national research program aimed at keeping the nation’s nuclear weapons secure.

by Helen Sabrowsky

Researchers from the University of Minnesota are a part of a new center focused on keeping the nation’s nuclear weapons operational and secure.

The Actinide Center of Excellence — funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration — will receive $12.5 million over five years to conduct research centered around stockpile stewardship. Experts say these studies will help ensure United States nuclear weapons remain operational.

Stockpile stewardship works to ensure the nation’s nuclear weapons capability is functional without actually testing weapons, said Peter Burns, the director of the center.

“It’s far superior if we can test scientifically rather than using weapons,” he said. 

While the center will use science to understand the aging and evolution of nuclear devices, researchers aren’t working directly with nuclear weapons, Burns said.

Instead, researchers like University chemistry professor Laura Gagliardi will use computation to explain or predict the results of colleagues’ laboratory work.

“Computational work is especially useful because laboratory experiments can be very expensive and require attention to safety … We can instead do this testing on the computer, and then guide our colleagues on potential experiments,” Gagliardi said, whose research focuses on theoretical and computational nuclear chemistry.

Stockpile stewardship also focuses on the disposal of nuclear waste, Gagliardi said. In the U.S., nuclear waste is buried or dumped, which can have environmental and safety consequences, she said. This is not the case in many other countries, where used nuclear fuel is reprocessed.

Varinia Bernales, a postdoctoral researcher, said Gagliardi’s team will focus on manipulating the formulation of nuclear materials, which can influence solubility. This, in turn, can make nuclear materials more recyclable, she said. 

While nuclear safety has always been a concern in the U.S., scientists are becoming increasingly interested under the current administration, Gagliardi said. 

The Actinide Center of Excellence — formed earlier this fall — is led by University of Notre Dame, and also includes scientists from Northwestern University, Oregon State University and Washington State University.  

In addition to conducting research, the center will also act as a training facility. Sixteen doctoral students and eight postdoctoral researchers will conduct research, complete courses in actinide chemistry and visit nuclear security facilities and laboratories, Gagliardi said.  

“Eventually, they will become the next generation of nuclear scientists in the country,” she said.