US trains nuclear detectives to trace 'loose' nukes
As nuclear safety concerns rise, the US government is building a stable of nuclear detectives – offering summer internships to those interested in radiochemistry nuclear forensics.
It was not Urskan Hanifi’s night.Skip to next paragraph
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He was stopped at a border checkpoint just after midnight, crossing from Romania into Bulgaria, when guards doing a routine inspection of his car turned up documents written in Russian – including one that described a shipment of uranium.
It was enough to make the guards suspicious. Popping the trunk, they found an air compressor inside, and upon closer inspection a tiny amount of highly enriched uranium, encased in a small glass vial, encased in wax, encased in a lead container.
The uranium in this nuclear-age nesting doll wasn’t weapons-grade, but it was sufficiently enriched to suggest that the batch it came from could be turned into a crude atomic bomb.
But where did it come from? And who performed a serious enrichment job on it?
Those questions, still largely unanswered in the 1999 Hanifi event, exemplify the kind of puzzle that falls to scientists involved in the small but vital field of nuclear forensics. Call it “CSI Atomic.” Now, almost a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US government wants to ensure its nuclear forensics proficiency – and an adequate stable of scientists who know their way around radioactive materials.
The Nuclear Forensic and Attribution Act, signed into law last month, aims to improve coordination among US agencies that probe cases of nuclear terrorism or nuclear smuggling. And it encourages tighter international cooperation in probing incidents beyond US soil.
But just as important, it is designed to attract a fresh crop of scientists to the field, in recognition of a looming shortage of such expertise as current scientists near retirement. Scholarships for undergrads, fellowships for PhD candidates, and research awards to professors teaching in relevant fields are the government’s incentives.
In return for the PhD fellowships, graduates must work two years at a national lab or at other federal agencies that help investigate nuclear terrorism or illegal trafficking.
Federal agencies already were beefing up their ability to trace radioactive materials to their sources – either samples intercepted during an investigation or, in the worst case, residue collected after a “dirty” bomb or nuclear device detonates. Still, the new law gives these efforts a more formal status, something that is “gratifying” to William Daitch, head of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center (NTNFC) in Washington.
How Julie Gostic became a nuclear ‘sleuth’
How does someone decide to make a career of tracking rogue nuclear materials – or identifying the radioactive sources used in a “dirty” bomb and understanding how radioactivity moves through the environment?
In Julie Gostic’s case, the motivation was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The lubricant was a US Department of Energy research grant.
She earned an undergraduate degree in biophysics and toyed with the idea of a medical career. Then 9/11 struck.
“It was a call to duty,” Dr. Gostic says. “I’m horribly uncoordinated; you’d never want to put a gun in my hand. So how could I contribute?”
The answer lay in her biophysics training. That led to a master’s in radiological sciences and a job at Sandia National Laboratory. There, she worked on projects aimed at helping countries improve controls over nuclear materials in hospitals and university labs – materials that, in the wrong hands, could be used for dirty bombs. But she still couldn’t answer her own questions about how radioactive materials move through the environment.
That led her to seek a PhD in radiochemistry, with Uncle Sam footing the bill. She got it last year. “Going back to school and not coming out with any debt helped me” decide to go for the PhD, she says, in a field experts say is crucial to the future of nuclear forensics – and national security .