As numbers decline, more nuclear physicists are needed for homeland security and other work

Apr. 22, 2006

As numbers decline, more nuclear physicists are needed for homeland security and other work

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- At a time when more nuclear physicists are needed to develop technologies for homeland security and to meet expected growth in the nuclear power industry, the nation's universities are producing fewer of these researchers.

That's part of the message that Ed Hartouni, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, presented today during a four-day national meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas.

The number of nuclear physicists produced by U.S. universities has been declining by 3 percent per year for the past decade, dropping to 66 nuclear physicists in 2003, said Hartouni, the leader of the Lab's nuclear and particle physics division. The average number of nuclear physicists produced annually during the past decade has been 84.

If the current downward trend continues, U.S. universities would be producing about 50 nuclear physicists annually by 2010.

"In that same time period, my colleagues in the Laboratory's Nonproliferation, Homeland and International Security Directorate tell me they're going to want double the current 40 nuclear scientists they have to do more work for the Department of Homeland Security and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office," Hartouni said.

"Our job is to alert people that there is a diminishing supply and an increasing demand for nuclear physicists. The challenge for LLNL is to make the Laboratory an attractive place for nuclear scientists to come and pursue their research. The challenge for the country is to increase support for this research and to raise the visibility of the field and its importance," he said.

One proposal that could provide a boost for nuclear physics is the Bush Administration's plan, called "The American Competitiveness Initiative," that would double funding for the physical sciences over the next seven years, Hartouni noted.

One of the roles of physicists and other scientists in the post 9/11 era is to aid in detecting weapons of mass destruction as well as the activities leading up to WMD, according to Hartouni.

"The vision of Vannevar Bush, President Franklin Roosevelt's science adviser during World War II, was to have first-rate researchers available to meet important security challenges and national needs," Hartouni said.

Scientific advances, such as the development of the atomic bomb along with the inventions of radar and synthetic materials like nylon, are believed by many to have played an important role in winning World War II.

It is particularly important to fund basic research, in Hartouni's view, since it is extremely difficult to anticipate the nation's future challenges.

"If we have a vital enterprise in basic research, that will provide us with state-of-the-art tools for solving the problems of basic science, and provide us with a range of solutions to national security problems," he said.

As an example of a basic research project that could yield security benefits, Hartouni cited a collaborative project between LLNL and Sandia National Laboratories researchers that will be the focus of another presentation at the APS meeting.

Now three years old, the project aims to use a three-foot-by-three-foot detector for antineutrinos that would be placed near nuclear power reactors to monitor the production of plutonium in the reactor core.

As part of the project, LLNL researcher Adam Bernstein and Sandia's Nathaniel Bowden have placed a prototype detector at the San Onofre nuclear plant in Southern California to test the concept of antineutrino monitoring.

Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has a mission to ensure national security and to apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration.