What were you doing when you were a college junior? Last summer, while most NC State undergraduates were working to earn some extra money or taking a class or two, juniors Chris Pope and Luke Westfield were helping to keep the world safe from people determined to have their own nuclear bombs. The two physics majors worked in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of a new effort to build an undergraduate research relationship between the University and the government lab in New Mexico.
“These are very challenging times for the U.S. in nuclear security.”
A Navy nuclear officer candidate, Westfield says he jumped at the chance to work at Los Alamos to get some technical experience that he could meld with his interest in nuclear policy issues. During his time at the lab, he ran computer simulations for a neutron detector that was deployed to Kazakhstan so the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could monitor the
movement of spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. The simulations were designed to find legitimate explanations for why readings on the detector might not match up with IAEA inspectors’ calculations of how much nuclear material should be at a particular site. For example, Westfield says, the arrangement of fuel-rod canisters inside a large cask could throw off the readings.
Meanwhile, Pope was conducting stress tests on radiation detection equipment by subjecting a test monitor to different temperatures and humidity levels. By comparing the readings on the monitor with those on a second test monitor at room temperature, he worked to develop a mathematical formula that inspectors could use in the field to compensate for local climate and ensure their readings were accurate. “The whole goal of the safeguards group we were working with is to ensure that nuclear material is not being diverted to non-civilian uses,” Pope says. “We need to be sure the equipment is precise.”
It’s heady stuff for undergraduates, a growing number of whom are getting hands-on research experience through NC State’s partnerships with the U.S. Department of Energy’s world-class national laboratories. While Pope says the experience pointed him toward policy work in nuclear nonproliferation, Westfield says he’s jumped into more research on campus, running simulations for the Department of Nuclear Engineering. Dr. Chris Gould, the physics professor who recommended the pair for the Los Alamos internships, says he hopes that the growing relationship with the lab will help other undergraduates find their niches. “These are very challenging times for the U.S. in nuclear security,” Gould says. “We need our best and brightest young people working on these problems, whether it’s in the lab or the field.”