With growing uncertainty about the development of nuclear weapons technology around the globe and the underlying threat of nuclear terrorism, national nuclear security has become one of the most intensely studied branches of nuclear science.
Nuclear engineering doctoral student Michael Moore can see why. In his eight months as a participant in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Nuclear Engineering Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Moore gained insight into the importance and relevance of nuclear security for all American citizens.
The NESLS program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education for DOE. It pairs students in nuclear engineering or related fields with national laboratory staff scientists on projects related to nuclear security technologies and other nuclear science disciplines.
As part of his senior practicum at Pennsylvania State University, Moore had already spent time at ORNL conducting nuclear forensics research funded by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Nuclear Forensics Undergraduate Scholarship Program award. Now a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, he saw the NESLS program as a logical next step. Through this program, he hoped to build connections, fine-tune his research skills, and even begin brainstorming topics for his future dissertation in 2019. Plus, he knew it would feed his unquenchable passion for learning.
“There are an innumerable amount of things that inspired me to choose a career in science,” said Moore. “Perhaps a childhood spent building Legos and watching Star Trek laid the foundation, but an unwavering love of learning has undeniably guided me to where I am.”
In the NESLS program, Moore studied nuclear yield, or the amount of energy given off during a nuclear blast.
The moment a nuclear blast occurs, radiation in the form of gamma rays, neutrons, beta particles, and alpha particles are emitted into the atmosphere. Additional gamma rays are then released in the moments following the blast via the decay of fission products and the capture of neutrons by atmospheric nitrogen.
Scientists have for decades used nuclear yield estimation methods that require specific knowledge about the bomb to achieve good approximations. One such method is radiochemical analysis, which involves measuring the quantity of fission products generated from the blast. Moore explored an alternative method that estimates nuclear yield based on initial gamma radiation data instead.
“This early yield estimation method would allow for an accurate yield estimate, without requiring specific knowledge of the detonated weapon,” said Moore. “It could be crucial in the rapid response analysis of a post-detonation event.”
Moore tested out this method using historical data from atmospheric nuclear weapon tests conducted in the U.S. He spent the majority of his days analyzing and comparing his results to the recorded yields.
With the help of his mentor Dr. Vincent Jodoin, lead of the Nuclear Security Modeling Group of the Reactor and Nuclear Systems Division, Moore is publishing several technical reports for internal use at ORNL. He considers this just one of many perks of participating in the NESLS program.
“I appreciate the flexibility and willingness of the NESLS program to assist the interns in achieving a meaningful practicum that is tailored to the individual’s interests and strengths, while working with students’ complex schedules,” Moore said. “This program allows for collaboration and extensions well beyond a simple summer internship. Setting aside all of the specialized in-house codes, professional development courses, and networking opportunities for a moment, the experience of performing world-class research at a leading national laboratory is irreplaceable.”