By Leda Zimmerman

Aditi Verma’s first encounter with nuclear policy was nearly her last. She represented Germany at a high school version of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and was frustrated by the debate on her group’s topic, nuclear waste. “We had to pass resolutions, but without a science and engineering background, people couldn’t really negotiate,” she recalls.

Today, Verma wonders if this experience paradoxically sparked her interest in the field. A doctoral student in nuclear science and engineering, Verma has spent her academic career acquiring the expertise in science, engineering, and the social sciences required to make sense of complex policy questions that arise around nuclear energy. Her studies have included an internship at the actual IAEA. Verma’s dissertation, entitled “Towards an International Nuclear Safety Framework,” highlights her distinctive, interdisciplinary approach. She draws on sociology and political science theory and practice, as well as quantitative analysis, to solve what she calls an “empirical puzzle”: how the U.S., French, and Russian nuclear programs developed different safety practices despite starting with similar technologies — and in the case of France, a reactor design identical to and originating from the U.S. (a type of pressurized water reactor).

Interviewing plant designers, operators, and regulators, as well as analyzing historical data and reviewing trade publications, Verma is teasing apart the divergent safety institutions that have evolved among the three nations. She has already detected sharp differences between the United States and France, where she spent the past summer applying her recently acquired French language skills. “In France, if they think of something that can go wrong with a reactor, even if the probability is very low, they will fix it,” Verma says. There, “regulators are constantly talking to designers, and setting safety objectives, with the idea that safety is something that must improve continuously.” In the U.S., on the other hand, “it’s more about establishing metrics and constantly being sure that quantitative targets are being met.”

About to start the field leg of her Russian research, Verma has begun the process of detailing the varied national approaches to nuclear safety. Her conclusions may be of interest to the 30 or more nations, mainly developing economies, currently pursuing nuclear energy. “If you’re trying to get into the game, you look around and see that different countries have different templates for doing things,” Verma says. “This raises questions: Is one way better than another, do different approaches matter, or are all of these people aiming for the same level of safety?”

Access to abundant, clean energy has preoccupied Verma since her childhood, where the Indian cities she lived in were frequently beset with power outages. A physics whiz, she entered MIT as an undergraduate and immediately focused on nuclear science. “I was eager to get started applying my knowledge to a problem I cared about, which happened to be energy.”

During her junior year, Verma experienced what she describes as a watershed moment in her studies: She enrolled in 22.812J (Managing Nuclear Technology), a graduate-level class taught by her advisor, Richard Lester. The course examined such nuclear industry issues as waste management and weapons proliferation. “I didn’t realize until then that you could bring economics, management, and policy insights to bear on nuclear projects,” Verma says.

She has been adding to her multidisciplinary toolkit ever since, applying both social science methodologies and quantitative technical analysis to explore, for instance, how the Indian nuclear energy program plans to meet its mid-century nuclear capacity targets, and effective ways for aspiring nuclear nations to develop a skilled workforce. With R. Scott Kemp, an assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, she is organizing a reading group for fellow graduate students that will apply concepts from philosophy, linguistics, architecture, and data sciences to problems in the design and safety of nuclear technologies.

“At first it was hard to think like a sociologist or political scientist about a part of the world I was so used to contemplating as an engineer,” Verma says. “But now jumping between two worlds is completely fascinating.” She believes this “dual way of looking at things” will help in a career she hopes will involve both studying and shaping nuclear industry policy. “I like the idea of being driven by questions, and with no disciplinary boundaries, finding the right tools and people to explore those questions.”

AuthorLaboratory for Nuclear Security & Policy

MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering Professor Areg Danagoulian has been selected for the prestigious IEEE/NPSS Radiation Instrumentation Early Career Award. He is cited for "contributions to the field of cargo security and active interrogation, in particular for the development of the Prompt Neutrons from Photofission (PNPF) technique in fissionable material detection."

Danagoulian's research focuses on nuclear security, a field that includes active and passive interrogation of commercial cargoes and public areas, with the aim of preventing nuclear terrorism; nuclear nonproliferation; treaty verification; and arms controls. With senior research scientist Richard Lanza, Danagoulian leads the Monochromatic Radiography Program at MIT, which pursues new methods for achieving low-dose radiography and active interrogation of cargo containers. His group studies various nuclear reactions involving megaelectron-volt gamma rays, as well as advanced radiographic techniques and algorithms for using gamma rays in radiographic applications.

Danagoulian is also involved in the Zero Knowledge Warhead Verification program. The objective of this program is to develop a direct warhead verification protocol that does not reveal secret information about the warhead's design. The group employs a technique called nuclear resonance fluorescence to create a profile of the composition of nuclear warheads identified for disarmament. The generated profile can then be compared with a profile created by the actual warhead for authentication without revealing information about design. Such a verification technique would enable arms reduction treaties which are much more aggressive than the current ones when it comes to dismantlement of nuclear arsenals.

Funded by the IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society, this award is given to a young investigator in recognition of significant and innovative technical contributions to the fields of radiation instrumentation and measurement techniques for ionizing radiation. The award will be presented at the IEEE/NPSS meeting in San Diego this November.

AuthorLaboratory for Nuclear Security & Policy

By Julia Sklar | MIT News

“Energy is incredibly fundamental to life,” MIT graduate student Ruaridh Macdonald says. “That’s why I keep studying it.”

This tenet has been the thread throughout Macdonald’s nearly eight years at MIT — first as an undergraduate, then as a master’s student, and now as a PhD student — all spent studying nuclear science and engineering. Though he has remained engaged in this one department, he’s participated in a variety of projects, first studying reactor design as he pursued his master’s degree and now working on a nuclear weapons verification project in the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy.

Transportable reactors

Macdonald, who grew up in West London, spent his grade school days equally interested in the arts and humanities and in physics. But he ultimately chose physics when faced with the U.K.’s school system, which requires students to pick a concentration, similar to a major in college.

“I still have immense respect for the arts, but I asked myself which would allow me to help people most broadly, and I chose science,” Macdonald says.

His view of energy’s fundamental role in life is deeply rooted in the fact that so much of the world still doesn’t have access to it. Believing in the potential of nuclear energy as a clean, cheap source of power, Macdonald immediately dove into the subject at MIT. And as a master’s student, he worked on designing small, transportable nuclear reactors specialized to run in remote, isolated, and off-grid locations. The possibility of their widespread use invigorated him, but the slow movement from scientific discovery to real-world use frustrated him.

A timely pursuit

Moving on to the PhD program in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Macdonald resolved to find another, more readily applicable outlet for his interest in nuclear science, landing him in a lab that tackles an especially timely issue: how to ensure that countries with nuclear weapons abide by disarmament agreements.

The linchpin of these agreements is being able to verify that the signers are following the rules. But the trick, Macdonald says, is for both sides — or a third party — to be able to police weapons in a way that doesn’t give out too much information about them. If the U.S., for example, were to inspect a Russian weapon, in the process they might also be able to gather valuable information about how it was built — not information that governments want other countries to have.

Macdonald is involved in a project, called Zero Knowledge Warhead Verification, that tackles this problem with a beam of light, a scrambler, and a detector. Objects are made up of nuclei, which each give off a unique glow when hit with a gamma ray; the specific glow of an object acts like a fingerprint to identify what isotopes it’s made of. By carefully repeating this process from multiple angles, a nuclear weapon can be identified based on the composition and distribution of its isotopes.

To provide just enough of this identifying information, but no design information on a weapon, Macdonald says that the weapon is illuminated by the gamma ray beam; the resulting information is then passed on to a scrambler that mixes up the signals before reaching a detector. The resulting signal is then compared with one from a known weapon to see if they match. As both signals are scrambled, the inspector learns nothing useful about either, preserving the owner’s secrets — similar to the idea of “hashing” in digital cryptology.

Room for discovery

The project is one year into a five-year-long effort in which Macdonald and his colleagues are also working with Department of Energy labs to design such a verification device. And the lab work, necessarily, is acutely linked with on-the-ground politics.

While Macdonald remains focused on the science end of things, there are policy specialists — advisors and graduate students alike — among the lab members. Their job is to make sure that at the end of the day, the verification device he’s working to develop is not, as he says, “something that doesn’t actually matter, but is just scientifically interesting,” but is rather something that could be used by nations to uphold disarmament agreements.

Though Macdonald remains unsure exactly where his future will take him, he’s sure why he’ll stick with energy, and probably nuclear science: Apart from its role in creating an energy alternative, part of what drew him to nuclear science in the first place was its relative newness as a subject.

“If you think about it, nuclear engineering is really only 50 or 60 years old at this point,” Macdonald says. “That’s really young in the science world, and it leaves a lot of room for discovery.”

AuthorLaboratory for Nuclear Security & Policy

Twenty-nine of the nation's leading scientists and nuclear arms-control experts—including former nuclear-weapon designers, White House science advisers, and Nobel laureates—co-signed a letter to President Obama on Saturday supporting the nuclear deal. Among them were MIT professors Frank Wilczek (physics) and R. Scott Kemp (nuclear science and engineering).

The letter, written by Richard L. Garwin, Robert J. Goldston, Rush D. Holt, R. Scott Kemp, and Frank N. von Hippel, highlights their judgment that before the agreement Iran was only a few weeks away from having fuel for a nuclear weapon, whereas under the agreement it would take Iran many months, leaving adequate time for international response. The letter concludes that the agreement, if accepted by Congress, would "advance the cause of peace and security in the Middle East and can serve as a guidepost for future nonproliferation agreements."

The five authors and 24 co-signers are some of the world's most knowledgeable experts about nuclear weapons. Garwin, a physicist who helped design the world's first hydrogen bomb, served as a science advisor to three presidents, both Democrat and Republican.

Kemp, before founding MIT's Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy, served in Obama's State Department as the science advisor responsible for building the technical basis for a negotiated settlement with Iran. He is an expert on clandestine nuclear proliferation and centrifuge technology.

Holt, former deputy director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and a former member of Congress, initiated the effort. He now leads the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the world’s largest general scientific society.

Frank von Hippel, a Princeton physicist, served as assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration and was previously instrumental in stemming the buildup of weapons between the Soviet Union and the West.

Among the co-signiners are Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford professor and former director of the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons laboratory; Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study; Sidney Drell of Stanford; and Nobel laureates Philip Anderson, Leon Cooper, Sheldon Glashow, David Gross, Burton Richter, and Frank Wilczek.

The letter and a full list of signers can be viewed here.

Secretary of State John Kerry's Remarks citing the letter.

AuthorLaboratory for Nuclear Security & Policy

LNSP received three grants to support new research directions related to its flagship projects on nuclear warhead verification and cargo inspection.

In May 2015, the Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded Prof. R. Scott Kemp a two-year grant to support interdisciplinary scholars working in nuclear security. The funds will support graduate students studying information transport, formal models, and U.S.-Russian cooperation related to LNSP's Zero Knowledge Warhead Verification System.

In June, MIT's Research Support Committee awarded Kemp an NEC Corporation Fund Award for Research in Computation and Communications. The award supports research on physical cryptography, the foundational method upon which LNSP's Warhead Verification System is built.

The Research Support Committee also awarded a Charles E. Reed Faculty Initiative grant to Prof. Areg Danagoulian for new work on monochromatic photon generation. The proposed experiment could improve the applicability of Nuclear Resonance Fluoresence techniques for isotope identification in nuclear security applications by reducing dose while dramatically improving signal-to-background rates.

"We are absolutely delighted to have received these awards," said Prof. Kemp, "The Carenegie and NEC awards will enable us to study a range of important interdisciplinary questions in warhead verification that go beyond the applied nuclear-physics program already supported by the National Nuclear Security Agency. The Reed Award will open up a new area of investigation for LNSP in photon sources related to both of our monochromatic-based projects."

AuthorLaboratory for Nuclear Security & Policy