Earth scientist and nuclear waste expert Rod Ewing joins Stanford

Ewing headliner Earth scientist Rod Ewing joins Stanford as in inaugural Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security. Michigan Engineering Portraits

Rod Ewing, a mineralogist and materials scientist who is an expert on nuclear waste management and policy, will join Stanford University to focus on sustainable energy, security and environmental research at the intersection of physical science and public policy.

Ewing has been named to a joint appointment as Professor of Geological and Environmental Sciences in the School of Earth Sciences and a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, within the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He also becomes the inaugural Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security Studies, an endowed chair established with a $5 million gift from the Stanton Foundation.

Ewing was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012 to serve as the chair of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which is responsible for the technical review of Department of Energy activities related to transporting, packaging, storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

Ewing, who earned his Ph.D. at Stanford and was granted a patent for the development of a highly durable material for the immobilization of excess weapons plutonium, is currently the Edward H. Kraus Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan.

He will take up his new position at Stanford next January and will help bridge Earth Sciences and CISAC to encourage collaboration on scientific and public policy projects.

“What is important to me is to be able to see the connections between subjects that, at first glance, do not appear to be connected,” said Ewing, a former visiting professor at CISAC. His research will continue to focus on the response of materials to extreme environments and the increasing demand for strategic minerals for use in the development of sustainable energy technologies.

Ewing, who has been at the University of Michigan for 16 years, will take advantage of Stanford’s state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, such as the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, for his work on the response of materials to extreme environments.

Ewing said in the past five years there has been growing interest in the performance of materials under extreme conditions, such as inside a nuclear reactor.

“There is a practical interest because new types of materials may form under extreme conditions that have never been previously synthesized,” he said. “And in some cases, these new materials may have very useful properties.”

He expects to teach courses in nuclear security, mineralogy, and energy issues.


Pamela A. Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of Earth Sciences at Stanford, said Ewing would help the school define a program in strategic minerals.

“This is an area of renewed interest to us, particularly in light of the need for these resources in renewable energy technologies,” Matson said. “To address the sustainability challenges of the 21st century, we need to both innovate in science and technology areas, and also understand the social and political environments in which decisions are made – and Rod does both. We believe he will help us build a strong partnership between the School of Earth Sciences and CISAC, thus strengthening Stanford’s efforts to solve critical environment and energy problems.”

Ewing spent a year on sabbatical at CISAC during the 2010-2011 academic year. “The quality and diversity of topics really swept me away; everything from terrorism, to nuclear issues to the ethics of war,” he said of his year in Encina Hall.

“Rod Ewing will serve as a vital bridge between science and policy,” said Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, Co-Director of CISAC.  “His research addresses fundamental questions about nuclear energy with enormous importance to global security.”

Ewing’s interest in nuclear science was sparked in childhood, when he saved up his allowance to buy the Disney book, “Our Friend the Atom.”

“Looking back at the book, one might call it propaganda, but it certainly captured my imagination,” said Ewing, who would go on to author or co-author more than 600 research publications and become the founding editor of the magazine, “Elements.”

As a graduate student on a National Science Foundation grant, he worked on a neglected field of metamict minerals, a relatively rare group of minerals damaged by radiation emitted by uranium and thorium atoms. The study of these unusual minerals in the last 30 years has blossomed into a broadly based research program on radiation effects in complex ceramic materials. This has led to the development of techniques to predict the long-term behavior of materials, such as those used in radioactive waste disposal.

Ewing will continue to chair the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board as the DOE continues its efforts to find, characterize and license a geological repository for highly radioactive nuclear waste.

“The first issue at hand in the United States is to develop a process for selecting a repository site,” said Ewing. “The challenge will be to combine scientific and technical criteria with the consent of local communities, tribal nations and states.”