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Carolynn Scherer
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Securing Some Very Nasty Material

For Carolynn Scherer ’80, the idea that nuclear material might fall into the wrong hands is one she has to worry about every day. She is particularly concerned about uranium hexafluoride, also known in the nuclear industry as “hex” or “UF6.” This highly toxic and corrosive compound is used during the uranium enrichment process, a step in producing fuel for nuclear reactors and weapons.

“This is very nasty material,” Scherer says. “We’re looking at recommendations that can be implemented globally to monitor the locations of cylinders that hold these materials.”

Scherer is the co-team leader of the Nuclear Nonproliferation and Systems Analysis Team at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico – one of three laboratories in the U.S. where classified work to design nuclear weapons takes place. Her job is to research how international safeguards can be put in place to keep nuclear materials secure and support the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Through the U.S. Department of Energy, she supports the U.S.-Russian Agreement on the accounting, control and physical protection of nuclear material. She visits Russia several times a year to support work at a reactor design site that enhances its accountancy and security of weapons-grade nuclear materials, i.e., plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

“These projects with Russia have been around since late 1994,” Scherer says. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, the fear was that with the recently opened borders, the weapons-grade nuclear materials may not be as secure, making them vulnerable to loss or theft. Also, we worried that their nuclear scientists would become available to other countries. Maybe the wrong countries. So the U.S. started to collaborate with these Russian experts.”

Scherer recently returned from a visit to the Institute for Physics and Power Engineering (IPPE), which contains the first civilian nuclear power station in the world, located in Obninsk, about 70 miles southwest of Moscow. The IPPE’s deputy director general has said he wants to work “with the U.S. to enhance nuclear material accounting and security at the institute.” Scherer will continue her efforts at the site to augment nuclear material security.

Together with her team, she works with IPPE on a computer database system to track the many thousands of nuclear fuel disks in one of its facilities. This special nuclear material is produced in the form of little disks – slightly larger than a big coin, less than two inches in diameter and less than half an inch thick. No one wants these disks smuggled out of the facility and processed into potential nuclear weapons.

“Globally, one of the biggest concerns is Iran,” Scherer says. “If you look at Iran’s unwillingness to be open to international inspections and sharing information regarding its nuclear fuel cycle, there’s concern that it may be trying to pursue a nuclear weapon.”

But Iran is only part of the problem. Terrorist groups around the world would like to obtain nuclear material.

“We need to track UF6 cylinders so they don’t end up in clandestine enrichment facilities, which are the beginning step to producing nuclear weapons,” Scherer says.

One way to track these cylinders would be to put a unique identification tag on each one. But this idea is sensitive business, Scherer says, because many enrichment plants in the nuclear power industry want to keep their processes proprietary, yet are required to work within a regulatory and inspection regime. 

“They are afraid they might lose their competitive edge,” says Scherer, who makes recommendations to the U.S. government about what guidelines should be put in place.

Besides her nonproliferation work, Scherer has also worked on developing MOX (mixed uranium-plutonium oxide) fuels for recycling fuel for the commercial power industry, as well as uranium nitride fuels for space exploration.

Scherer earned her master’s degree in ceramic science from The Pennsylvania State University (1986), a bachelor’s in ceramic engineering from Alfred University in New York (1983), and an associate’s in business administration from Notre Dame (1980). Her achievements with ceramic-based superconductors eventually led her to work with nuclear material.