What would be the impact of a nuclear explosion in the US?

UT students are recipients of a Department of Homeland Security grant to research the impacts of nuclear explosions. These students will work on research that can be used by government agencies. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).
UT students are recipients of a Department of Homeland Security grant to research the impacts of nuclear explosions. These students will work on research that can be used by government agencies. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — University of Texas at Austin faculty and students are beginning research through a grant with the Department of Homeland Security to learn more about what would happen if a nuclear explosion occurred in the U.S.

These UT researchers alongside the Air Force Technical Applications Center are looking for the type of information that would help senior decision makers respond to a nuclear event.

Assistant Professor Derek Haas and his students have just started on this nuclear forensics research, he explained that his team had their first official meeting with DHS and AFTAC this month. His team will be using UT’s nuclear reactor to target uranium samples with a tailored neutron beam. Then they’ll examine the fission products and radioactive debris.

“We’ll be looking for specific signatures of that material, there are thousands of radioactive materials that are created here and we’ll be trying to pick out just a few that can help with a response to a domestic nuclear event,” Haas explained.

UT has a nuclear reactor housed at the J.J. Pickle research campus, which was an asset for the school when they applied for the grant. The reactor is significantly smaller than the type of reactors that produce power, it is used for experiments and to help train students. For the duration of this project, most of the research and experiments will be done at UT.

“This specifically is the type of research that we hope is never used but, it needs to be there, in case it ever happens our adversaries should know that we have that capability,” said Haas, who has been working in the science of national security since 9/11 when he was an undergraduate student.

“The ongoing nuclear risk that has been developing for decades is something that drives a lot of this, so it’s both personal and something that drives us professionally,” Haas said.

UT will receive $250,000 per year for the duration of this grant, which Haas said will last two to five years.

Haas explained that their research will be made public and published in peer reviewed journals, government agencies will then use it as they need to. The National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center explains on their website that the U.S. needs to be able to figure out who is behind nuclear smuggling and attacks. The website further explains that the country’s response to any attack needs to be backed up by demonstrable proof, which could come from nuclear forensics. 

Brandon De Luna is one of the graduate research assistants for this project, he works with neutron activation analysis. He knew the application process would be competitive and was pleasantly surprised to have this opportunity.

“It’s awesome because initially I wasn’t inclined to do radio chemistry type of work, but this grant allows me to learn and also to apply radio chemical techniques,” De Luna explained.

“You hope it wont end up having to matter, right? It’s just very exciting important work that hasn’t been done,” said Marji Pasman, the graduate research assistant who will be focusing on the chemistry portion of the research. She explained that she will be looking at the fission products of chemical reactions.

Pasman and De Luna, as well as one undergraduate student, are the three Longhorn students supported by this grant. They will spend each summer interning with AFTAC.

These students are also obligated to work for the federal government or a national lab for two years after graduating.

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