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Students work in a lab for HITES12 2017

High School Seniors Participate in Nuclear Forensics Project


The UTK Department of Nuclear Engineering participated in the Engineering Diversity Program’s HITES12 summer program this July 10-14 by hosting a group of four high school seniors in a week-long nuclear forensics project. The project, led by UTNE research professor John Auxier and assisted by Dr. Matt Cook and professor Lawrence Heilbronn, posed the following problem to the students: One-kiloton devices have been detonated in both Houston and New York city, with one of the devices a thermonuclear weapon and the other a radiological dispersal device. Their task was to use nuclear forensics tools such as gamma ray detectors and mass spectrometers to determine the identity and quantity of isotopes collected from the debris, assess the usefulness of each tool, and finally determine the type of device used in each city.

HITES12 2017     HITES12 2017

The first day had the students in the lab, making up samples that simulate the melt glass produced in each city. The pictures show the students carefully weighing each component of the sample using “recipes” for each city developed by UTNE researchers. As the students found out, measuring out a sample to precisely 0.003 grams can be challenging. The next day the students went to the UTNE teaching labs to work with both NaI and HPGe detectors, noting the advantages and disadvantages each detector system brings to the nuclear forensics table. The third day had the students up in the Radiochemistry Center of Excellence’s mass spectrometry lab to see how melt glass samples are dissolved and eventually analyzed using the lab’s ICP mass spectrometer. The fourth day tied all of the evidence together and had the students analyze each piece to conclude which city was hit with which device, as well as work on their power point presentation they gave to the entire HITES12 program.
HITES12 2017
In addition to the group project, the NE Department hosted the entire HITES12 group of students on Wednesday to give a tour of our facilities and describe the opportunities for students who come to UTK to study nuclear engineering. The HITES12 program, led by Engineering Diversity Programs director Travis Griffin, attracts some of the brightest high school seniors from around the country who are interested in STEM. We hope to see some of these students become UTNE Volunteers starting in the fall of 2019.

Learn more about HITES12 here