The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has selected a group of university faculty to capture the nuclear forensics research at US universities and work with the top scientists at national laboratories. The NNSA university consortia is thus one of the few mechanisms by which universities can receive direct funding from the NNSA for graduate student research. The Consortium for Nuclear Forensics is one of four NNSA consortia, including the Consortium for Modeling, Technology, and Verification (led by the University of Michigan and Professor Sara Pozzi), the Consortium for Emerging Technologies and Innovation (led by Georgia Institute of Technology), and the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (led by the University of California – Berkeley).
Dr. Jim Baciak originally hailed from Iron Mountain, a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and spent 10+ years at U-M, obtaining all three of his degrees (BS, MS, and Ph.D.) at U-M. After graduating in 2004, he was appointed Assistant Professor in Nuclear and Radiological Engineering at the University of Florida (Gainesville, FL). Dr. Baciak has not only served as the former Director of the Nuclear Engineering Program but also as Interim Chair for Materials Science and Engineering for a time. He was encouraged to lead the consortium proposal by a number of faculty, including U-M NERS Professor Igor Jovanovic and Professor Kyle Hartig, a former student of Dr. Jovanovic.
Dr. Jovanovic, who was awarded the Nuclear Forensics Junior Faculty Award by several collaborating federal agencies in 2010, is now the group leader of the Applied Nuclear Nuclear Science Group at U-M, which pursues two major research directions: the first focuses on precision measurements of ionizing radiation with advanced radiation detectors, while the second concerns use of intense ultrafast lasers for nuclear applications.
The primary purpose of the consortium is to educate and train students with the talent and commitment to meet the current and emerging challenges in nuclear forensics, with strong ties to the U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory system and federal agencies. Since nuclear forensics represents one of the cornerstones of broader global security efforts and has a key role in understanding the origin and history of nuclear material, assisting in the sustenance and improvement of the enforcement of international nonproliferation agreements and prevention of the trafficking of nuclear material and arms control, students will develop the skills, technical expertise, and preparedness to contribute to the nation’s needs in nuclear forensics, which includes solid technical backgrounds in chemistry, physics, mathematics, statistical analysis, material characterization, nuclear science, quantum sensing, and environmental science. Dr. Jovanovic said, “As a result of understanding nuclear forensics science, we hope to set the technical foundation for the world in which the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons to advance political aims will be implausible.”
The consortium is set to educate and train more than 90 Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. students with strong ties to the U.S. national laboratory system and federal agencies. Dr. Baciak said, “Students will play the central role in interdisciplinary research projects led by faculty and laboratory experts in the consortium. Research projects conducted by universities in conjunction with the partnering national laboratories will enhance existing collaborations and foster new ones among all the partnering institutions.” Additionally, the consortium plans to implement a Professional Scholar Development Award (PSDA) program to engage rising-star researchers in pre-tenure faculty positions and introduce them to the NNSA DNN R&D program. This program will help ensure that investment and support for nuclear forensics research and related faculty positions will continue at the university level. But beyond the broader benefits to society, Dr. Jovanovic is excited that his involvement in this consortium as a co-investigator affiliated with the University of Michigan will offer NERS students an opportunity to engage in exciting and groundbreaking nuclear forensics research projects in collaboration with top scientists at universities and national laboratories. He said, “I particularly look forward to the cross-fertilization between the work that will be done in this consortium and the current Monitoring, Technology, and Verification Consortium.”
Dr. Baciak expressed excitement about winning the new proposal for the NNSA Consortium for Nuclear Forensics, calling it a “massive award that took a significant amount of effort to put together.” He plans to use the funding to recruit many students and encourage them to apply to the University of Florida Nuclear Engineering Program and their Ph.D. program. He also believes their selection was due to the team they have, not just at the University of Florida and the University of Michigan, but also the other 14 universities as part of the team.