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Federal Government Looks to MU to Assist with Shortage of Nuclear Experts

University of Missouri officials will host and direct summer schools aimed at recruiting undergraduates to explore careers in nuclear science.

May 22, 2012

Story Contact(s):
Christian Basi,, 573-882-4430

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­— Approximately 10 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. Simultaneously, not enough students are being trained in the nuclear and radiochemistry fields to replace those retiring. Now, with two grants from the U.S. Department of Energy worth approximately $1.7 million, University of Missouri officials will host and direct summer school programs designed to encourage undergraduates to consider entering nuclear science fields.

“Each day in the United States, 30,000 people are scanned with a particular radioisotope, technetium-99m, to diagnose heart disease or cancer,” said David Robertson, director of research at the MU Research Reactor and professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Science. “This important action allows doctors to catch problems early — when there is a better chance for success. We can do this because we have nuclear technicians and others that have been educated on how to handle and maintain nuclear material. 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 such as cancer. These summer schools are one solution to that challenge, and we’re pleased that the federal government recognizes that MU has the expertise to assist with the solution.”

This summer, Robertson will direct the Nuclear Chemistry Summer School, which was established in 1984. Since that time, more than 570 students have participated in the program, and many have become noted experts in the field of nuclear chemistry. Robertson, who will receive $1.5 million to lead the summer school, will be the director of the school for the next five years.

During the nuclear chemistry school, students are introduced to basic and applied nuclear science through laboratory work, given tours of nearby research centers and national laboratories and have the opportunity to interact with prominent research scientists who are experts in nuclear and radiochemistry, nuclear medicine, and other fields.

Justin Walensky, assistant professor of chemistry at MU, also received a $170,000 grant to host the Nuclear Forensic Summer School. The six-week summer school will be held from June 11 through July 20 at MU and will provide students with comprehensive, experimental, hands-on training in topics such as nuclear decay, atomic and nuclear structure, nuclear material processes and uses, the nuclear fuel cycle, radiation detection, standard analytical methods and environmental radiochemistry.

“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. For example, nuclear material typically has a ‘signature’ that allows scientists to pinpoint where the material was made. If we have a nuclear detonation, we can use these tools to determine what type of bomb was detonated, the material that was used and where it was made.”

Participants in the summer schools will be encouraged to join a research project the following summer at a university or federal research institution. Assistance is provided to secure those positions and/or admission to masters and doctorate programs at universities.

The summer schools are highly 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. The schools do have a successful track record. In the last two years, more than half of the nuclear science doctorates in the United States were awarded to graduates from the summer schools.

“Currently, 104 nuclear plants are providing 20 percent of the electrical power in the United States,” Robertson said. “This year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved construction and license for a new nuclear power plant in Georgia. We need to develop ways to manage the nuclear fuel cycle so we can continue to produce nuclear fission safely and efficiently, and we need to make sure we have the people in the career pipeline that can take the reins as older experts retire and leave the field. These schools are one answer to that challenge.”