Skip to main content

A class of UT nuclear engineering students recently got the educational opportunity of a lifetime, thanks to the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

Y-12 invited students from one of Howard Hall’s classes to the complex, one of the top nuclear facilities in the world, for what is known as a tabletop simulation. As the joint UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Global Nuclear Security, Hall directs the Global Security Policy program at UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy as well as UT’s Institute for Nuclear Security.

Y-12 Group

Also known as a battleboard military exercise, the event split the students into two opposing forces with the idea of offering real-world practical lessons for UT’s nuclear engineering and nuclear security students in the face of a variety of nuclear scenarios.

“Things have changed so much since I arrived here at Y-12 in 1995,” said Bill Tindal,

Y-12 site manager for Consolidated Nuclear Security, which oversees the facility. “Those changes demand the next generations think in new ways about how to solve the complex problems presented by today’s terrorism.

Y-12 rules“That’s why courses like the one these students engaged in are so important.”

Blue versus Red        

The exercise started well in advance of the visit, with students, divided into teams representing an adversary and a protective team, coded red and blue respectively. Over the course of a semester, the students planned strategies based on a model nuclear facility.

“The tabletop exercise is, for me, a highlight of the nuclear security program at UT,” said Hall.

One week before the actual exercise the red team, captained by PhD student Mike Shattan, and the blue team, captained by PhD student Michael Moore, were required to submit a detailed budget along with well-researched and -developed strategies according to their specific missions given at the beginning of the term.

Planning went well beyond strategy sessions in order to make the scenario as real as possible, with espionage, false information, and hastily called meetings designed to throw off the other team’s surveillance efforts.

“Life is sometimes not as simple as we would like it to be,” said PhD student Caleb Redding. “Scientists like to make models to keep things in logical order, but if the model breaks down in the midst of real-world challenges details can quickly become complicated.

Y-12 students“The tabletop was a sobering experience. In fact, I learned the most significant lesson from this class out of all my coursework so far.”

In the end, the blue team overcame the red team’s use of bulldozers to be declared the winner. Despite causing unspeakable damage and gaining access to the imaginary highly enriched uranium from the simulated facility, the red team lost all but one person in the scenario, leaving victory just outside its grasp.

Even so, Hall heaped high praise on the defeated invaders.

“They were perhaps the most organized team I’ve seen since teaching this course,” said Hall. “Their use of the dozers was a first.”

Though both enlightening and inspiring, the exercise carried with it pretty severe real-world implications.

Nuclear engineering graduate research assistant Jon Gill, who co-led the semester-long course, summed up the hard truth to students after they received their certificates of participation in the exercise at Y-12.

“If this were a true instance and not a practice exercise, the loss of human life and the carnage would have been high,” said Gill.

Opportunities beyond the exercise

Y-12’s Bill Wilburn, KJ Maddux, and Casey Cole gave students a little history lesson in addition to the nuclear one, leading them on a tour through parts of the massive facility.

Additionally, students met with several high-profile people throughout the day, including

Jim Haynes, past president and CEO of CNS, and Michael Beck, vice president of Mission Engineering (CNS), a division that includes all engineering services at Pantex in Amarillo, Texas and Y-12. Haynes returned to Bechtel in an executive position February 1 and was succeeded at CNS by Morgan Smith.

Other Y-12 experts also offered encouragement to the students.

“There is much uncertainty and violence in the world,” said Teresa Robbins, NNSA Production Office deputy manager and UT graduate. “That makes these students and this exercise critical as security infrastructures adapt to the changing conditions.”

Robbins was joined by David Wall, former senior nuclear engineer of the NNSA’s Y-12 Production Office, and Jim Goss, who replaced the retiring Wall.

Machelle Sumner, ORNL program manager of the Detection and Deterrence program in the NNSA’s Office of Nuclear Smuggling, shared with students the importance of exercises such as these as they prepare to enter the nuclear security profession.

Sumner stated that the mission of NSDD is to detect, deter, and interdict nuclear material, and if this program fails, a scenario much like the tabletop could play out in real life.

NSDD relies heavily on fixed radiation portal monitors to fulfill its mission, and its office is the only nonproliferation program that receives data from the equipment installed around the world. The expert ORNL team analyzes the data and determines whether the RPMs are operating as intended.

She explained that nonproliferation seeks to build what experts refer to as a “defense in depth” with partner countries by reducing threats—nuclear and otherwise—and that the NSDD provides an important layer of that defense through detection equipment and training.

According to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, the number of graduates in nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry is alarmingly low.

In light of the large percentage of experts specializing in these areas who are retiring or are expected to retire in the coming years, attracting new students to the field is critical. Courses like Hall’s and exercises such as the one at Y-12 work toward the solution.

Because of that need, experts like Maddux and Cole don’t hesitate to pitch in, spending several hours of off time helping design and facilitate the test.

“I especially loved working with students because that experience is very refreshing,” said Maddux. “I love what I do—working with government employees—but where the employees tend to take time to open up to creativity, the students are typically already there.”

Where it all began

Another Y-12 tabletop organizer, Darrell Poteet, said he regularly runs similar exercises with hospital employees and other institutions that handle radioactive materials.

Generally speaking, he said, the exercises he runs “do not hit the high level of excitement that the student tabletops do.”

Hall shared an anecdote with his students about a past tabletop exercise at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal research facility in Livermore, California.

The red team’s goal in this simulation was to smuggle weapons-grade nuclear material from the Pacific into the US using only open-source information.

Hall cautioned that in this exercise the red team was successful, diverting the material by 500 miles. He used the example to highlight the need for continued research and development in nuclear security education.

“Our job, ultimately, is to prevent such loss,” said Gill. “In the excitement, it may be easy to lose sight of what is at the heart of the matter, but at the end of the day, this is what we are here to prevent.

“This is our greatest mission.”

Hall introduced a new collaborative model for this tabletop exercise at UT, one he said he brought from his experience at Lawrence Livermore and his work with the US Department of Homeland Security.

“We implemented it at UT to bring multiple interdisciplinary perspectives to bear on the complexity of today’s terrorism,” said Hall.


Sumner Brown (865-974-8687,