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.
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Politicians from former Vice President Dick Cheney to President Obama have recently identified nuclear terrorism as America’s most serious security threat. A key reason for their concern: a steady drumbeat of attempted or actual incidents of nuclear-materials trafficking.Skip to next paragraph
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Between 1993, when the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency began gathering data on illegal trafficking in nuclear materials, and 2008, the agency received 336 confirmed reports of criminal activity involving nuclear material. The IAEA logged another 421 incidents of stolen or lost nuclear material worldwide. Since 1995, reported incidents have averaged 19 a year.
Moreover, the soil for nuclear mischief may be getting more fertile. Nuclear energy worldwide seems poised for expansion, and, in the West, worries abound about Iran’s nuclear program. The ongoing US-Russia effort to retire more nuclear warheads, if successful, may increase the risk that decommissioned nuclear material could be stolen if adequate safeguards are not in place.
At the same time, a shortage of nuclear forensics experts looms, experts say, citing unclassified reports on the field and a soon-to-be-released study from the National Academy of Sciences.
Indeed, these days just 60 researchers – mainly at the national labs – have experience in nuclear forensics, and none of them works full time on it, says Benn Tannenbaum of the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Why so few? Many people with the skills to conduct nuclear forensic investigations opt for higher-paying jobs in other sectors, such as nuclear medicine or nuclear power.
Then, too, the US government ended underground nuclear-weapons testing in 1992, reducing the demand for a corps of full-time scientists who analyze test results and devise technologies to increase the precision and speed of that analysis, says Mr. Daitch at NTNFC.
But there’s much work yet to do, says the AAAS’s Dr. Tannenbaum. “We’re still not at the limits of physics as far as how accurate our measurements can be or how fast [they] can be taken.”
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 .