Dr. Seaborg was recognized not only for his fundamental research in nuclear chemistry, but also for his strong commitment to science education. “The education of young people in science is at least as important, maybe more so, than the research itself,” he once told the New York Times.
Established in 1991, the LLNL Glenn T. Seaborg Institute (Seaborg Institute) conducts collaborative research between LLNL and the academic community and serves as a national center for the education and training of undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and faculty in transactinium science. Its first director was Darleane Hoffman (1991–1996). Dr. Hoffman had a prolific career at the national laboratories (Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley, and Lawrence Livermore), was professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, and was among the team of scientists that confirmed the existence of Seaborgium, element 106. Hoffman’s position as director of the LLNL Seaborg Institute was followed by Lou Terminello, Patrick Allen, Christine Hartman, Annie Kersting, and Mavrik Zavarin.
Training and education
A central theme that has been maintained throughout the history of LLNL’s Seaborg Institute has been its focus on training and education in nuclear science. In 1998, the Seaborg Institute initiated an Actinide Sciences Summer Program. The summer program was later renamed the Nuclear Forensics Summer Internship Program (2008) and helped to support the growing interest in nuclear forensic science programs at LLNL. In 2019, the summer program was renamed the Nuclear Science and Security Summer Internship Program (NS3IP). The goal of the NS3IP is to facilitate the training of next generation nuclear scientists and engineers to solve critical national security problems in the field of nuclear science and nuclear security. This internship program is supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) which enables the Department of Defense and the US Government to prepare for and combat weapons of mass destruction and improvised threats and to ensure nuclear deterrence. Students are selected from the fields of physics, chemistry, geology, mathematics, nuclear engineering, chemical engineering, and environmental sciences. Students engage in research projects in the disciplines of actinide chemistry, radiochemistry, isotopic analysis, computation, radiation detection, and nuclear engineering. The NS3IP students conduct research on such diverse topics as nuclear forensics, high precision isotope measurements, radiation network analysis, nuclear materials metrology, and dosimetry. In many cases, NS3IP research evolves into a significant component of the students’ graduate theses.
The LLNL NS3IP is highly competitive, with hundreds of applicants vying for a dozen available positions each year. Since 1998, hundreds of interns, coming from universities across the US and the world, have participated in the internship program. Alumni of the internship program are now employed across US national laboratories, universities, and government agencies and provide a unique resource for nuclear science expertise in the United States. Since 2002 (based on tracking of ~200 interns):
- 43 interns continued their graduate work at LLNL
- 30 became postdoctoral fellows at LLNL
- 16 became postdoctoral fellows at other national laboratories
- 23 hired as LLNL career scientists (inc. GTSI deputy director, Naomi Marks)
- 21 were hired as career scientists at other national laboratories
- 22 were hired at other government institutions
- 26 were hired at universities
- 48 transitioned to the private sector
The success of the internship program is made possible by the dedication of the staff scientists who volunteer to mentor the summer students and participate in the Seaborg Institute seminars. The mentors develop summer projects for their students, oversee necessary safety training, and dedicate time to helping the student interns maximize their productivity and scientific potential.
The Seaborg Institute engages with scientists from around the world to work on diverse research including super heavy element discovery, nuclear forensics and attribution, fundamental actinide chemistry, and environmental radiochemistry. Visiting scientists are able to take advantage of the state-of-the-art analytical capabilities available at LLNL, such as nano-secondary ionization mass spectrometry, accelerator mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, resonance ionization mass spectrometry, and transmission electron microscopy. Current research in the area of super heavy element discovery helps to uncover the chemical and physical properties of the heaviest human-made elements. Led by Dawn Shaughnessy (former Seaborg Institute deputy director), staff scientists build on Livermore’s long history of accomplishment in fundamental nuclear research, with spectroscopic, chemical, and decay studies dating back to the 1950s. The group has been involved with the discovery of six new elements—113, 114, 115, 116, 117, and 118. The Livermore team has worked with its Russian colleagues who are building a dedicated accelerator at Dubna, Russia to continue this successful superheavy element discovery and production.
Nuclear forensics and attribution research focuses on the chemical, isotopic, and morphological analysis of nuclear and radiological materials. Led by Mike Kristo, staff develop and apply nuclear forensics techniques such as mass spectrometry, microscopy, chemical assays, radiochronometry, and in-situ microbeam techniques. One recent Seaborg student project resulted in the development and publication of a new method for assessing the surface roughness of nuclear fuel pellets, a trait that can be linked to fuel pellet provenance (see the article “Quantifying surface roughness on UO2 fuel pellets using optical techniques,” published by Said et al. in 2020). In addition, LLNL advances the field through the development of new analytical techniques to reduce timelines and interrogate previously intractable samples. For example, Mike Savina (Seaborg Institute deputy director) has recently pioneered the technique of resonance ionization mass spectrometry (RIMS)—lasers tuned to unique resonant frequencies that selectively and rapidly ionize atoms of an element. RIMS can help determine whether or not an interdicted material was used in a nuclear reactor, or a weapon—information that can help to determine its origin and intended use.
A key focus of environmental research involves studying the behavior of actinides in order to better understand how to foster long-term stabilization of these highly toxic, radioactive elements. Research led by Mavrik Zavarin’s group includes lab-based experiments, field observations, and computational models aimed at understanding the biogeochemical mechanisms that control actinide mobility in soil and groundwater. Previous work explored how colloids control transport of low concentrations of radionuclides and more recently they have observed the importance of soluble organic ligands in the binding and potential transport of lanthanides and actinides in groundwater. Fundamental actinide studies are also an important area of investigation at LLNL, where recently Gauthier Deblonde and colleagues have developed new radiochemical techniques and chelators to glean fundamental structural information on actinium and develop novel extraction methods for radiometals used in nuclear medicine. The identification and characterization of natural chelators susceptible to influence the speciation, redox chemistry of transuranium elements, and ultimately their mobility in the environment, is also a very active research topic.
The LLNL Seaborg Institute has been profoundly impactful on the transactinium science workforce at LLNL and across the Nation. By engaging with students and universities, the Seaborg Institute is well poised to promote transactinium science to new cohorts of students, creating engaging and meaningful scientific opportunities. The LLNL Seaborg Institute is looking forward to another 30 years continuing to build a strong, diverse, and competent transactinium workforce through promoting scientific discovery and training for students.
- K.J. Moody, I.D. Hutcheon, P.M. Grant, Nuclear Forensics Analysis, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2005, 485.
- G. Aubrecht, A.B. Balantekin, W. Bauer, J. Beacom, E.J. Beise, D. Bodansky, et al., “The Search for Heavy Elements,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA, 2019, No. LLNL-BOOK-793713.
- M.J. Kristo, A.M. Gaffney, N. Marks, K. Knight, W.S. Cassata, I.D. Hutcheon, “Nuclear forensic science: Analysis of nuclear material out of regulatory control,” Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci., 2016, 44, 555–579.
- M. Said, C.W. Eng, A.E. Hixon, N.E. Marks, “Quantifying surface roughness on UO2 fuel pellets using optical techniques,” Forensic Sci. Int., 2020, 316, 110470.
- M.R. Savina, B.H. Isselhardt, R. Trappitsch, “Simultaneous isotopic analysis of U, Pu, and Am in spent nuclear fuel by resonance ionization mass spectrometry,” Anal. Chem., 2021, 93(27), 9505–9512.
- G.J.P. Deblonde, A.B. Kersting, M. Zavarin, “Open questions on the environmental chemistry of radionuclides,” Commun. Chem., 2020, 3(1), 1–5.
- K.D. Morrison, M. Zavarin, A.B. Kersting, J. Begg, H.E. Mason, E. Balboni, Y. Jiao, “The influence of uranium concentration and pH on U-phosphate biomineralization by Caulobacter OR37,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2021, 55, 3, 1626–1636.
- E. Tran, P. Reimus, O. Klein-BenDavid, N. Teutsch, M. Zavarin, A.B. Kersting, N. Weisbrod, “Mobility of radionuclides in fractured carbonate rocks: Lessons from a field-scale transport experiment,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2020, 54(18), 11249–11257.
- C. Joseph, E. Balboni, T. Baumer, K. Treinen, A.B. Kersting, M. Zavarin, “Plutonium desorption from nuclear melt glass-derived colloids and implications for migration at the Nevada National Security Site, USA,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2019, 53, 13, 12238−12246.
- M. Zavarin, P. Zhao, C. Joseph, J.D. Begg, M.A. Boggs, Z. Dai, A.B. Kersting, “Hydrothermal alteration of nuclear melt glass, colloid formation, and plutonium mobilization at the Nevada National Security Site, USA,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2019, 53, 13, 7363–7370.
- G.J.P. Deblonde, J.A. Mattocks, H. Wang, E.M. Gale, A.B. Kersting, M. Zavarin, J.A. Cotruvo Jr, “Characterization of americium and curium complexes with the protein Lanmodulin: A potential macromolecular mechanism for actinide mobility in the environment,” J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2021, 143(38), 15769.
- G.J.P. Deblonde, J. Mattocks, Z. Dong, P. Wooddy, J. Cotruvo, M. Zavarin. “Capturing an elusive but critical element: Natural protein enables actinium chemistry,” Sci. Adv., 2021, 7, eabk0273. DOI: 10.1126/ sciadv.abk0273.
- K.D. Morrison, Y. Jiao, A.B. Kersting, M. Zavarin, “Reduction of plutonium(VI) to (V) by hydroxamate compounds at environmentally relevant pH,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2018, 52, 6448−6456.
Director of the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Dr. Zavarin received his BS in chemistry and PhD in soil chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently the director of the LLNL’s Glenn T. Seaborg Institute which hosts an annual student summer internship program and promotes collaborative research between LLNL and the academic community in nuclear science. Dr. Zavarin has an active research group of postdocs and graduate students, and has published over 60 papers focused on experimental and modeling efforts to understand and simulate the transport behavior of radionuclides in the environment, with a particular focus on actinides.