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UT trains next generation of nuclear security

12:21 AM, Feb 15, 2013   |    comments
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North Korea set the world on edge this week by testing a third nuclear bomb believed to their most powerful to date.

A nerve wracking thought for any American-- but there's a group right here in Knoxville with the potential do something about it.

For of University of Tennessee Institute of Nuclear Security students, the future of the field will likely rest in many of their hands.

Future nuclear engineer Michael Willis sat in a classroom Thursday afternoon, watching a toy train zoom around a track.

It's a simple child's toy. But in the hands of these UT students, it's a tool to track terrorist threats.

Canisters sitting in the center of the plastic train track detect radiation.

"It could be used for explosives, radiological dispersing devices, or nuclear bombs," explains Willis.

The train simulates moving targets with those kinds of nuclear materials on board.

He's trying to test how well the canisters can find the source of the radiation on a moving target.

Move those canisters from the classroom, to the front of a cop cruiser and this UT technology could prevent tragedy.

Howard Hall leads the institute as the governor's chair professor for nuclear security at UT. 

He says the field desperately needs more young people to replace an aging generation of nuclear experts.

And they'll come from all fields.

"Engineers are important, 'poli-sci' people, political scientists are going to become diplomats,"says Hall.

And North Korea once again brought the issue front and center this week.

"Now they've tested three separate times nuclear devices on the way to presumably putting a nuclear weapon on one of those missiles they've been developing," says Hall. "It's not out of the question that they could conceivably fire a missile at Los Angeles or San Fransisco. And that would be a disaster."

His hope is that diplomatic or academic relations could ease tensions between the countries.

But if the situation escalates, he wants his students to help the US be prepared.

"We want to make sure that the sort of tools that our military has to figure out if they go in and do something, we want to make sure that they have the best tools possible," says Hall.

Hall's position also involves work for Oak Ridge National Laboratory and he says having UT and ORNL in the same area provides an invaluable opportunity for advancement in the field.

"There is no where we could do the sort of work we're doing to the level we're doing it , other than right here in East Tennessee," says Hall.

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