Advancing nuclear security education

By Troy Rummler

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Sandia and UNM partner to help students develop practical skills

Radioactive materials are attractive targets to thieves and other bad actors. These are rare finds, valuable on the black market and easy to weaponize. New security professionals rarely learn practical skills for protecting these targets until they are on the job at nuclear power plants, research reactors, processing plants and other nuclear facilities.

“There is a need to have students who are technically trained in nuclear security before they work at a laboratory, a government agency, or at a commercial nuclear facility,” said Alan Evans, a Sandia nuclear engineer.

Alan and his Sandia colleagues are teaming up with their counterparts at the University of New Mexico to create a new approach to teaching nuclear security. Their goal: create a one-of-a-kind, graduate-level program — one that has access to two national laboratories — that focuses on technical skills in education, research and professional development.

Sandia and UNM signed a memorandum of understanding in September that outlines the creation of such a program over the next five years. They have financial support from NNSA’s Office of International Nuclear Security.

Hyoung K. Lee, professor and chair of the UNM Department of Nuclear Engineering, said his hope with the new agreement is to create more robust opportunities for current and future nuclear engineering students at UNM.

“UNM has such a phenomenal resource right in its backyard with Sandia, so it makes sense to maximize that proximity by creating a partnership that will truly enhance students’ education,” he said. “We are very excited to be developing this program that we feel, with Sandia’s collaboration, will offer UNM students an incredible advantage in the nuclear security field.”

Nontraditional challenges

At the core of the team’s vision is a pedagogical shift toward engineering.

“There are other university programs in nonproliferation and nuclear security — some of which Sandia already works with — but a lot of these classes focus on policy and concepts,” Alan said. “So, we had to ask ourselves: How can we better prepare the next generation of experts to apply traditional engineering capabilities to nontraditional challenges facing nuclear security for tomorrow?”

Adam Williams, a Sandia systems engineer who has supported several educational initiatives, says the answer lies in forming the right team. He helped create the education program at the Gulf Nuclear Energy Infrastructure Institute at Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, has served as a technical consultant on a nuclear security graduate program being piloted at Ukraine’s Kiev Polytechnic Institute, and has lectured at multiple universities on security topics.

“We have a rare opportunity with UNM to create a robust, technical education program to bolster nuclear security around the world,” Adam said.

students gather around table to observe nuclear security measures
NUCLEAR NUMBER-CRUNCHERS — Attendees at Sandia’s 2018 International Training Course practiced accounting for nuclear materials. Sandia is building a new graduate-level program with the University of New Mexico to extend similar resources to students and working professionals.

Nuclear security is one of Sandia’s core research missions. For more than 70 years, the Labs’ primary work has been engineering the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. But corollary to this work, Sandia has had to keep these weapons and components secure. Through generations of research and practice, Sandia has grown into one of the world’s foremost authorities on securing nuclear and radiological materials against would-be thieves or saboteurs.

“We are building on decades of expertise at both institutions to transform nuclear security from an art to a science,” Adam said.

If successful, the new program will create a pipeline of professionals with knowledge, skills and abilities that shortcut years of on-the-job training — making their positive impact at nuclear facilities more immediate and long-lasting, and broadening their employment opportunities. Coursework also will better prepare nuclear engineering students to consider security when they design new energy, defense and medical technologies.

Additionally, Sandia will provide resources for the future Advanced Nuclear Security Summer School, a three-week, intensive professional development course to be hosted at UNM. The summer school will concentrate course materials for global industry executives and university professors, and will be taught at a level appropriate for mid-career professionals.

“UNM is helping us create a new mechanism to enhance nuclear security capacity across the globe,” Adam said.