The University of Tennessee Institute for Nuclear Security, part of the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, recently received a $1.2 million grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration to establish the Radiochemistry Center of Excellence.
The NNSA is part of the Department of Energy, and its goals include ensuring the safety and security of the United States nuclear programs, both military and civilian, while also engaging on the its research and academic aspects of nuclear technology.
As most research funded by the NNSA is through national labs instead of universities, the new center will strengthen UT's relationship with all the national laboratories, according to Dr. Howard Hall, the principal investigator for the RCE and the Governor's Chair Professor for Nuclear Engineering.
The center will help to promote the study of radiochemistry. Hall said the field can help secure nuclear weapons around the world, understand signatures of nuclear proliferation and develop better medical diagnostic tests.
"It's a fantastic field," he said.
The Center has the possibility to be continued over the next five years eventually totaling $6 million.
While the proposal was submitted in March of last year, the mandatory budget cuts Congress left in place this year postponed the program for quite some time.
"Instead of getting our money in October or November as would have been normal, we got it in...beginning of July," Hall said.
Dr. Arthur Ruggels, professor of nuclear engineering, is also excited about the grant. Since 2009, Ruggels has been financing his positron emission tomography study through his other research projects, and is glad to finally have mission specific funds.
"It was quite painful for me financially at the institution to languish for six months while the outcome of the sequester got decided within our government," Ruggels said.
Ruggel's research focuses on positron emission tomography, a type of medical imaging technology which has experienced a period of swift growth during the last 20 years.
"From fairly primitive – producing fuzz, notional images – to very refined, quite exacting characterizations of the human body and malignancies in the human body," Ruggels said.
The new center will allow for greater study of radiochemistry as a discipline. Currently there are plans to create a master's program at UT in the field, and according to Hall, possibly an undergraduate field as well.
Currently, the program will encompass faculty and a few graduate students for research, but there is a proposal in progress with the chemistry department to create a formal master's program in the field at UT.
UT will become the only school in the southeast to have this sort of radiochemistry program, joining the ranks of University of California, Berkeley, Washington State University and University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"This particular Center is focused more on...proving our ability to forensically determine what went on if there were a nuclear attack somewhere," Hall said. "Also in understanding behavior of materials...radioactive materials long-term, that's very important."
The field of radiochemistry, which according to Hall had shrunk significantly over the past several decades, is now gaining a new foothold thanks to the NNSA. The government agency relies heavily on the field, and thus has a vested interest in seeing qualified scientists be created.
"From the NNSA standpoint...they recognize that if they don't have some mechanism to help train and educate new practitioners in radiochemistry, they will find themselves unable to do that mission as well as they currently do it," Hall said.