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R. Scott Kemp brings new perspectives on nuclear technology and society

R. Scott Kemp, assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering
R. Scott Kemp, assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering
Photo: Justin Knight

All engineering disciplines interact with society, but nuclear engineering is a special case, inexorably bound up with critical issues of our era: energy, the environment and international security. Developing a deeper understanding of the interplay of nuclear technology and society and building these insights into new models of engineering leadership are central elements of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering's (NSE) strategic plan, and the appointment of Assistant Professor R. Scott Kemp marks a milestone in extending research and teaching in this area in NSE.

Kemp’s background includes an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a PhD from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — a combination that enables him to conduct integrated technical and policy analyses of global security issues, with special emphasis on nuclear proliferation.

There is a need, Kemp says, for "a major correction in the trajectory of our nonproliferation policy. It’s getting much easier for countries to do what they want, to find obscure bits of information that can be pieced together to create what might be regarded as classified knowledge, and to build technology that was previously thought to be esoteric and difficult.” Kemp, who recently served as the State Department’s science advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, argues the importance of “studying how current policy evolved — do the technical assumptions still hold, or is a new perspective needed?”

To this end, Kemp brings historical analysis to bear on current nuclear issues. An example is a series of recent publications on centrifuge enrichment, a technology that can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Kemp showed that this type of enrichment capability is relatively easy to establish and difficult to detect — facts that were known at the time of its invention in the late 1950s, but which were suppressed because “the necessary course corrections would have conflicted with larger foreign policy goals,” Kemp says. As a result, generations of policymakers have worked under sets of assumptions that don’t incorporate the facts.

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