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Best of the Best

Brian Wirth Works with Two Researchers in a Lab

In 2018, the Department of Nuclear Engineering graduated 24 doctoral students—a record number for any nuclear engineering program in the United States. Ever.

But success like that doesn’t just happen overnight. It was the result of foresight, planning, growth, and making careful considerations over a period of years to create the most well-rounded and high-value program possible.

Recognizing a Problem

In 2007, the department had seven faculty members. By the time Wes Hines became department head in 2012, there were 12. He knew if the department were to reach its goal of making more significant scholarly contributions to the field, that number would have to grow even higher.

By 2014, the department had grown to 17 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. The department also houses five full-time research faculty and two joint UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chairs: Brian Wirth for computational nuclear engineering and Steve Zinkle for nuclear materials.

“Expanding the faculty like we did has allowed us to engage in new research areas that we weren’t able to before, notably nuclear materials and nuclear security,” Hines said. “It also increased activity across the board, gave our faculty a chance to be more engaged with students, and significantly ramped up our overall research portfolio.”

The department was now on the move.

Shifting the Focus

Another key moment in the department’s upward trajectory was its decision to position its research focus on tackling some of the nation’s biggest challenges.
But in order to handle those new opportunities, the department first had to increase enrollment, particularly among doctoral students.

In 2008, doctoral students were just one-third of the department’s graduate enrollment, but have since risen to around 85 percent. Since 2012, the number of doctoral students has increased from 47 to 132.

Chart of PhD Graduation and Enrollment Growth

“Doctoral students take four to six years to graduate as opposed to the one or two years needed for a Masters,” Hines said. “That’s important, because as the percentage of doctoral students increases, so too does the average time we have students and it takes several years to make research contributions that can impact national needs.”

It has also increased the department’s importance to the regional economy. Chances for professional development abound in the area, which has the largest concentration of nuclear industry anywhere in the world.

Students now had opportunity, both scholastically and post-graduation.

Steve Zinkle


While the department has always had an outpouring of research, the importance and value of its work to the world around has increased as steadily as the faculty
and enrollment.

“Hiring Governor’s Chairs in Nuclear Security and Nuclear Materials aligned us with important national research needs,” said Hines. “These top faculty not only solidified our relationships with local research partners in Y-12 and ORNL; they also changed our research culture. We focused on larger, more impactful research topics and funding opportunities.”

The department has taken a leading role in nuclear materials, in particular.

Materials Science and Engineering’s William Weber, the joint UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Radiation Effects on Materials, has several projects that are in line with the department’s work, while the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials further strengthens the department’s work and collaboration in
nuclear materials.

Nuclear security is another area of global importance that, as Hines hoped, has grown into an area of strength for UT. The US Department of Homeland Security has
turned to the department multiple times for expertise, including supporting:

  • ƒƒLaurence F. Miller (now Professor Emeritus) and his work developing neutron detectors;
  • Jason Hayward and a colleague in the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who have developed a portable radiation detection device;
  • Eric Lukosi and colleagues from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering who are working on low-cost scintillators for radiation detection.

In addition, faculty have given talks and received awards at the highest levels of national and international agencies, students have increasingly won US Department of Energy Scholarships and Fellowships through the Nuclear Energy University Program, and national recognition from peers has solidified the department as a consistently top-ranked program.

UT’s proximity to ORNL and the Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex has also helped attract top minds and talent to both the faculty and student body, thanks to joint faculty positions and research projects being conducted at facilities such as ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source.

“Scholarship, research funding, faculty, students; all of those things are tied into one another,” Hines said. “It’s hard to be successful as a department or in any of those areas without the other three also being solid.”

The foundation was set.

Setting the Bar

The class of doctoral students who set the record for the largest nuclear engineering class in US history didn’t come to UT with that goal in mind.

They didn’t come because of $129 million building that is finally under construction.

They didn’t come on a whim.

They came because the department is energized by a stellar faculty with big ideas who are conducting meaningful research in one of the country’s top places to be studying nuclear engineering.

It started with a plan that was laid before they finished their undergraduate work, was followed through in detail, and has now come to fruition.

“We didn’t set out to have the largest class of doctorates, or even really with any other goal in mind,” Hines said. “We just wanted to be the best we could be, the best we knew we had the potential to be. Our goal was just to be our best.”

At spring commencement, they were just that: the best. Ever.

2018 Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Award Winners Announced


Web pic 2018 Innovations in Technology Logo

CANYON, TX – Four students at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have won awards in the 2018 Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Awards, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Technology R&D.

Kelsa Benensky, a Ph.D. student in Nuclear Engineering, has been awarded a Second Place prize in the Open Competition in the category of Advanced Fuels. Her award-winning research paper, “Evaluation of Novel Refractory Carbide Matrix Fuels for Nuclear Thermal Propulsion,” was presented at the conference Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space in February 2018.

Eric O’Quinn, a Ph.D. student in Nuclear Engineering, has been awarded a prize in the Competition for Students at Universities with Less than $600 Million in 2016 R&D Expenditures. His award-winning research paper, “Inversion in Mg1−xNixAl2O4 Spinel: New Insight into Local Structure,” was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in July 2017.

Daniel Rutstrom, an undergraduate student in Materials Science and Engineering, has been awarded a prize in the Competition for Students at Universities with Less than $600 Million in 2016 R&D Expenditures. His award-winning research paper, “Investigating New Activators for Small-Bandgap LaX3 (X = Br,I) Scintillators,” was published in the Journal of Crystal Growth in February 2018.

Gavin Ridley, an undergraduate student in Nuclear Engineering, has been awarded a prize in the Undergraduate Competition. His award-winning research paper, “Introduction to Moltres: An Application for Simulation of Molten Salt Reactors,” was published in the journal Annals of Nuclear Energy in April 2018.

HITES12 2018

HITES12 2018

Rising high school seniors Brie Jarret, Yael Garcia, and Christian Brown spent part of the week of July 8-13 working with Professor Heilbronn, Scott Emert, and Bradley Balltrip on a project to work with and test remote sensing robots used to find and locate hidden radioactive materials.  They did a great job in characterizing and quantifying our first-generation robot’s abilities, as well as provide suggestions for the next generation.  The project was part of their activities in the Tickle College of Engineering’s HITES12 program, a program that the Nuclear Engineering Department has participated in since its inception.  We thank Brie, Yael and Christian for spending part of their summer with us, and look forward to seeing great things from them in the future!

ISA’s Power Industry Division (POWID) Symposium Talks 2018

Dr. Hines, Bradley Adams, Dr. Peter Martin.

Dr. Wes Hines (Head of the Nuclear Engineering Department, The University of Tennessee), Mr. Bradley Adams (Engineering Vice President, Southern Nuclear Operating Company) and Dr. Peter Martin (Vice President of Innovation and Marketing, Schneider Electric) gave the lead plenary talks and followed up with a panel at the ISA’s Power Industry Division (POWID) Symposium at the end of June 26, 2018.  All three discussed the need for instrumentation and control innovation and modernization to enhance economic competitiveness of the power industry.  Mr. Adams is also the chair of the University of Tennessee’s Nuclear Engineering Department Board of Advisors.

Student Research Leads to New Understanding of Compounds


Jacob Shamblin (MS/NE ’17) and Maximilian Heres, a graduate student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, recently authored a paper looking into why certain metals can exhibit insulated properties at times.

The metals, known as nickelates, have the inherent ability to switch between insulated states and conductivity. This property makes them effective transistors and able to serve as high-temperature semiconductors, both of which are key factors in fields related to energy and electronics.

Discovering how to control that property has major implications for technology, helping to spur on the work of Shamblin and Heres.

“These compounds are interesting because they undergo a sharp metal-insulator transition (MIT) and the temperature at which this occurs can be tuned by changing the size of the atoms in the crystal structure,” said Shamblin. “This behavior has long been known about but there has not been any definitive understanding as to why this occurs.”

Assistant professors Maik Lang of nuclear engineering, Joshua Sangoro of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Steven Johnson and Haidong Zhou, of physics and astronomy, all took part in the project.

The team’s research dealt with lanthanum nickel oxide (LaNiO3) and neodymium nickel oxide (NdNiO3) in particular.

“The MIT in these materials is coupled to changes in their crystal structure and magnetic properties,” said Lang. “Our research on nickelates has led to an entirely new way to understand the MIT due to strong electron-lattice coupling and dynamical polaron condensation.”

Lang said the origin of the transition in the materials has been the subject of intense debate, and that this was an excellent opportunity for studying the relationships between structural and functional material properties.

He credited the availability of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Spallation Neutron Source and experiments conducted by Sangoro’s lab as being essential to the work.

ORNL’s Joerg Neuefeind and Madrid Institute of Science and Materials’ J.A. Alonso also worked on the project, which was published in Nature Communications.

Upadhyaya Award Maintains Faculty Tradition

Belle Upadhyaya

Belle Upadhyaya

Professor Emeritus Belle Upadhyaya received the American Nuclear Society Don Miller Award in June at the society’s meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first award recipient was Professor Robert Uhrig in 2010, former UT nuclear engineering faculty and distinguished scientist. Professor Rafael Perez received it in 2011, making Upadhyaya the third UT nuclear engineering professor to receive the award.

The award recognizes the culmination of a recipient’s career in the area of nuclear instrumentation and control or human-machine interface. It was established in 2009 and named after Don W. Miller, professor and distinguished program chair at the Ohio State University Nuclear Engineering Program, a prior member of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, and past ANS President.

The Miller Award is given to an individual or team that has made recognized contributions to the advancement of one or both of the fields of nuclear instrumentation and control or human-machine interface through individual or combined activities that reflect Miller’s life and contributions.

1st Annual Decommissioning Strategy Forum

The UTNE Department and ETEBA (Energy, Technology, and Environmental Business Association) joined forces at the 1st Annual Decommissioning Strategy Forum, which is being held at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, TN.  Nuclear Engineering as well as Civil & Environmental Engineering students are encouraged to consider the Nuclear Decommissioning & Environmental Management (ND&EM) minor along with their major program of study. 


For more information about ETEBA, please click here:

For more information about the Decommissioning Strategy Forum, please click here:

Decomission Opryland A

UT Knoxville Nuclear Engineering students trained at VR-1 nuclear reactor in Prague, Czech Republic

ANS Prague simulator


During this summer mini-term, twelve undergraduate students of UTK Nuclear Engineering (NE) department participated in a study abroad Experimental Reactor Physics Laboratory class (NE427) led by Dr. Ondřej Chvála, who is a research assistant professor at the NE department.

 ANS Prague mine

The students spent the first week visiting several sites in the Czech Republic – including a former uranium mine Bukov which now serves for geological repository research, Czech nuclear power plant Temelín, the research institute in Řež near Prague, and the Prague Castle; and in Vienna, Austria – the Belvedere palace, United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Preparatory Organization, and St. Stephen’s cathedral. During the second week the students worked with a nuclear reactor VR-1 at the Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU), performing reactor physics related measurements and working out respective lab reports. Each student actually operated the reactor at the last day of the labs.


reactor1 reactor2 reactor3

The class is open to undergraduate and graduate students interested in nuclear reactor dynamics and hands on experimental work. This is the sixth time this class was held. Contacts with CTU had already led to mutual student exchanges and research collaborations between the UTK NE department and the Czech Technical University.

ANS 2018-2019 Student Scholarship Winners

Madison Ratner

Undergraduate Category


Sophomore Undergraduate

Madison S. Ratner


Matthew Herald

Robert T. (Bob) Liner Memorial Scholarship

Matthew Herald

Madison Allen

Hans P. Loewen Memorial Scholarship

Madison N. Allen

Andrew Volkovitskiy

Operations and Power Division Scholarship

Andrew V. Volkovitskiy

Kalie Knecht

Charles (Tommy) Thomas Memorial

Kalie R. Knecht

(Picture Not Available)

Decommissioning, Decontamination & Reutilization Division Undergraduate Scholarship

Coleman R. Curran

(Picture Not Available)

Fusion Energy Division Dr. Kenneth R. Shultz Undergraduate Scholarship

Ashley Goluoglu


Fan Zhang

Graduate Category

Fan Zhang


Jessica Bishop

James F Schumar Scholarship

Jessica L. Bishop

Dan Floyd

Robert E. Uhrig Graduate Scholarship

Dan C. Floyd


Student Spotlight: Raul Palomares


Raul Irvin Palomares

This student spotlight is on Raul Irvin Palomares!  Raul is the 2018 recipient of the departments PhD Graduate Student Award and the University of Tennessee Chancellor’s 2018 Extraordinary Professional Promise Award. As a graduate student, Raul has published 10 peer-review journal articles (4 as first author) in his research area of materials under extreme conditions, including radiation effects in materials. He has presented at 14 conferences and technical meetings including two oral presentations at international conferences in Germany and in New Zealand. Raul earned Best Presentation awards at both the 20th International Conference on Ion Beam Materials & Modifications and at the 16th National School on Neutron and X-ray Scattering. Raul also  presented as an invited speaker at the 2017 Materials Science & Technology (MS&T) conference.

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