Nuclear detectives: Penn State awarded $1.8 million grant to improve nuclear forensics


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a division of the Department of Defense (DoD), has awarded the Penn State Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering a $1.8 million grant to further the fundamental data for nuclear forensics.

Through this research, the U.S. will be better equipped to respond to a nuclear attack. Specifically, if a nuclear weapon is ever discovered or detonated, officials will need to quickly determine its origins to identify the threat actors. With this funding, Marek Flaska, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and the principal investigator of the project, said, “We are going to help DoD to play nuclear detectives.”

“Each time you examine a special nuclear material – uranium or plutonium – you’ll see a unique signature,” Flaska explained. The current gaps in knowledge of nuclear data prevent to accurately determine where the material was manufactured.

As DTRA furthers its mission to develop technologies against biological, chemical, and nuclear threats, Flaska and his team will provide this missing fundamental data. By measuring more than 70 short-lived fission fragments within the materials used to create nuclear weapons, their work will enhance the national response in the face of a nuclear detonation.

“When this research is completed, we’ll be able to look closely at the composition of samples collected after an explosion and see where the weapon was made, what country, and in some cases, even which facility,” he said.

The efforts of his co-investigators, Bruce D. Pierson, a staff scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Amanda Johnsen, a research associate at the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center (RSEC), will complement the breadth of Flaska’s findings. “Their work will be immensely important for the project; Pierson will characterize various materials of interest with 14-MeV neutrons from the PNNL’s D-T neutron generator, and Johnsen will support the project through her expertise in radiochemistry, by preparing high-quality samples for the experiments,” Flaska said.

The grant will also support a graduate student dedicated full time to this research, Marc Wonders, a doctoral student studying nuclear engineering and advised by Flaska.

Penn State, one of the few U.S. universities with an on-campus nuclear reactor, is distinctively prepared to spearhead this research. Flaska explained, “We have a very unique, fast-neutron spectrum available at the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor that actually resembles an expected nuclear weapon energy spectrum.” Within the context of this project, it means Flaska and his team are able to mimic the expected neutron-energy parameters of a nuclear explosion and analyze the materials of interest under realistic conditions.

Emphasizing the impact of government and university collaborations, Flaska said, “Without our nuclear reactor, this project wouldn’t be possible. This research will be greatly leveraging the facilities we have access to at Penn State.”

Beyond the DTRA’s critical applications in identifying the origins of a nuclear weapon, this research also has the potential for greater impacts. “I’m a nuclear engineer, so by definition, my research is applied,” he explained. “What greatly interests me about this project is it’s really exploring and expanding the fundamental knowledge in nuclear science. In addition, the data acquired during the project will be important for many other applications, including existing and novel research and commercial nuclear reactors, nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear safeguards.”


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Erin Cassidy Hendrick,

Marek Flaska.

Dr. Marek Flaska, assistant professor of nuclear engineering.

“Without our nuclear reactor, this project wouldn’t be possible. This research will be greatly leveraging the facilities we have access to at Penn State.”



The Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering at Penn State is one of the top ranked nuclear engineering programs in the United States. The department distinguishes itself from other programs with a strong focus on experimental research in power, science, security and safety. The actively growing department leads four educational programs for students pursuing a bachelor of science, a master of science, a master of engineering or a doctoral degree. The department also houses the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, the country’s first and longest operating licensed nuclear reactor. The construction and operation of the reactor introduced nuclear engineering to Penn State, and, in doing so, harnessed research and educational opportunities as key strengths for the department. See how we’re inspiring change and impacting tomorrow at

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