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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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To attract young scientists into radiochemistry and nuclear forensics, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., finds summer internships to be a promising avenue for piquing the interest of undergraduates, says Nancy Hutcheon, who administers the lab’s program, funded by the NTNFC. At least six students “are doing graduate-thesis work that in some way is involved with the nuclear forensics arena,” she says.

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One is Greg Brennecka, an Arizona State University student working toward a PhD in isotope geochemistry – a field that studies the abundance of chemical elements and their isotopes, including radioactive isotopes. Mr. Brennecka has spent several summers interning with the lab’s nuclear forensic scientists. Once he finishes at ASU, he says, he may wind up at another university doing research. “But over the long term, I would like to something like Livermore’s nuclear forensics program.”

One of his projects there: developing ways to help pinpoint which of the 150 uranium mines that ever existed on the planet a sample came from.

On TV, forensic scientists of every ilk produce results in no time, but the reality is slower – and Daitch acknowledges the potential for enormous pressure for quick results. Nuclear forensic scientists are working toward that end, but the Hanifi case illustrates the difficulties.

Nine months after Bulgaria confiscated the vial of uranium, the US requested the sample. It took another nine months for Lawrence Livermore scientists to finish their analysis. Physical traits of the sample indicate it came from outside the US. Traces of paper pointed to Europe as the source for the trees. The glass vial appeared to be similar to those used at nuclear-fuel reprocessing plants to archive samples.

As for Hanifi? He served a short prison sentence in Bulgaria and was fined the equivalent of $900. Soon after his release, Hanifi went home to Moldova and reportedly died a short time later under mysterious circumstances.

Patrick Grant, with the lab’s Forensics Science Center, says the material’s source remains uncertain, although some reports suggest that the uranium came from a nuclear-fuel reprocessing facility in Russia. In effect, it is a nuclear “cold case.”

Still, there are promising approaches to speeding an investigation.

One is to use high-speed supercomputers to model potential terrorist nuclear devices. The intent is to build a virtual archive of devices against which investigators can compare what they may one day find in the field.

Another is to use lasers to speed the analysis of a sample. Typically, samples must be first dissolved in a fluid, which can take hours, explains Michael Carter, who heads counterterrorism research at Lawrence Livermore. Laser preparation may make samples available for analysis much faster.

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 .