October 12, 2008

Cuts Hurt U. Studies on Chemical Materials

By Wendy Leonard Deseret News

Critical chemical safety research being done at the University of Utah is being scaled back because of federal budget cuts.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently moved ahead on plans to reduce and modernize management of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile -- and in the process slashed grants given to facilities around the country that are developing safe ways to handle such volatile materials.

"They have to take care of a lot of things, but they have to do it with far less money, and that could be dangerous," said Chuck White, a physical chemistry professor at the U.

The U.'s Center for the Simulation of Accidental Fires and Explosions (C-SAFE), which is wrapping up projects funded by an initial $20 million federal grant, received $1 million this year, about $500,000 less than expected. The cut means some projects will have to wait for additional funding, slow down or be halted altogether.

"The effect is real," White said. "There will be a direct impact on the amount of research we're going to be able to turn out."

The cuts come in addition to the energy department's ordering an environmental-impact study on the consolidation program it plans to run, limiting certain chemicals, such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium, to just five states instead of the current seven. The government plans to close hundreds of buildings and reduce workers in weapons programs by 20 percent to 30 percent as well as combine efforts of existing facilities.

"The number of U.S. nuclear weapons is shrinking, budgets are flat or declining, and we need a smaller, more secure, more efficient infrastructure that reflects these realities and yet retains our essential capabilities," said Thomas D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the weapons program.

C-SAFE funds research done by about 75 graduate students, post- doctoral fellows and faculty from multiple departments at the U. Such a substantial cut, White said, "is slowing down their work."

"The research done by C-SAFE is ultimately directed at creating safer environments for those who manufacture and transport energetic materials," he said. Trucking companies don't necessarily benefit immediately from university research, but policies and procedures leading to safer practices begin in educational environments.

Faculty and students are currently working on development of software that can predict properties of chemicals that are in a state of change and infrared technology that can track the behavior of fire.

"Some students and faculty will have to divert to other projects, leaving some of the C-SAFE projects at a stand-still," White said, adding that compensation for work being done is already tight, meaning the program can't employ additional students or faculty now.

The final word on funding for programs developing research on such technical endeavors will depend on how the energy department budget fares at the end of this year. Officials at the U. expect to know the end result by January or February.

Contributing: Associated Press

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