The Michigan Engineer News Center

An international experience in nuclear safeguards

Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences graduate students went to Ispra, Italy to learn about international nuclear safeguards.| Short Read

“Nuclear safeguards is an international problem,” said Alexis Kaplan, a nuclear engineering and radiological sciences (NERS) PhD student in the Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation Group. “Just because we safeguard material in the US, it doesn’t protect us if some other country isn’t being safe.”

Kaplan recently returned from her first truly international course on nuclear safeguards, which ran from March 18th to 22nd at the Joint Research Center (JRC) in Ispra, Italy. She and four other NERS graduate students joined about 55 other students, mostly from Europe, to learn about the policy, law, and technology designed to keep nuclear materials that pose a weapons risk under tight control.

“When we have these nuclear power plants all over the world, we need to know that no one is able to steal nuclear materials or take even any small part of them because that’s where states or terrorist organizations can get material to make nuclear weapons. Safeguards basically prevent the theft or diversion of that material,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan’s piece of the puzzle is monitoring nuclear materials with non-destructive detectors. These detectors measure how much nuclear material is present in an object, such as a fuel pin, without the need to pull it to pieces. “I’m working on a system that measures spent fuel to see whether any of it has been stolen or changed,” she said. She was excited to hear about systems similar to hers in one of the lectures – it gave her a different perspective on the same problem.

Tyler Devries-Wallace, a NERS masters’ student, and NERS PhD students Charles Sosa and Jeff Katalenich travelled with Kaplan, and they met Marc Paff, a fellow NERS PhD student who is working at JRC Ispra for the summer.

“For me, the course was an excellent opportunity to network with young professionals in the safeguards field from around a dozen different countries,” said Katalenich. “Presentations from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union Joint Research Centers gave me new insight into how nuclear safeguards are implemented across the world.”

Katalenich works in the group of Gary Was, the Walter J. Weber, Jr. Professor of Sustainable Energy, Environmental and Earth Systems Engineering. His research focuses on nuclear power in spacecraft, but he is interested nuclear forensics. If nuclear materials are confiscated from terrorists or rogue states, engineers need methods to find the source of the materials so that they can prevent the breach in security from happening again. “The topics discussed basically gave me a better understanding of what techniques are used in the field today,” he said.

Though the technical talks and tour of the JRC Ispra lab were interesting, Kaplan emphasized the law and policy aspects of nuclear safeguards. She had been aware that policy underpins all nuclear energy decisions in the US, but she found that it was an equally big factor in Europe. The lectures also covered international nuclear law and how lawyers approach it. “That was a topic I’d never heard a lecture on in all my years of nuclear engineering,” said Kaplan.

Sara Pozzi, associate professor of NERS and supervisor of Kaplan, Sosa, and Paff, secured the funding to send U-M students to the course. “Nuclear materials must be controlled in states around the world, and safeguarding them requires both policy and technical aspects. For this reason it is important that graduate students trained in this discipline be exposed to international experiences,” she said. “For several of the U-M students attending the course at JRC Ispra this was their first international trip.”

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