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June 21, 2012 Volume 33, No. 33

MU receives $1.7 million grant to direct summer nuclear programs


Scientists needed to replace retiring nuclear experts

Ten percent of the nation’s experts in nuclear and radiochemistry are at or nearing retirement age, according to a recent report from the National Academies of Science. Meanwhile, not enough students are being trained to take their places.

Two MU scientists are doing their part this summer to get young people interested in a career in nuclear science. They are being aided by two grants worth about $1.7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to oversee summer school programs that encourage undergraduates to consider entering nuclear science fields.

Justin Walensky, MU assistant professor of chemistry, is leading the Nuclear Forensic Summer School at MU June 11–July 20. David Robertson, director of research at the MU Research Reactor and a professor of chemistry, is leading the Nuclear Chemistry Summer School at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N. Y., June 20–July 22. Registration for the sessions is closed.

Robertson said the nuclear science field has led to developments in technology to diagnose heart disease and certain cancers that use a radioisotope called technetium-99m. “The nation needs more of these individuals to develop ways to make these isotopes safely and efficiently and develop new drugs for finding and treating diseases,” he said.

Students at MU’s nuclear summer school will receive hands-on training in topics involving nuclear forensics, including radiation detection and environmental radiochemistry — in other words, an overview of what to do after a nuclear accident.

 “Our main goal in nuclear forensics is to track and contain the material,” Walensky said. “Students in the summer school will be learning laboratory techniques that allow us to measure and identify radioactive material.”

The summer schools are competitive. The Nuclear Forensics School accepted only 10 students from 60 applications while the Nuclear Chemistry School accepted only 24 students from more than 120 applications. 

Robertson said the growth of nuclear electrical power plants in the United States requires young scientists knowledgeable in the nuclear field.

“We need to make sure we have the people in the career pipeline,” Robertson said. 

“These schools are one answer to that challenge.”