Nuclear Forensics Echo "CSI" Show, Scientists Say

BARCELONA, Spain -- Nuclear forensics is a bit like the work done by the investigators of "CSI," except the substance in question is not blood but potentially dangerous radioactive material, specialists in the field said yesterday (see GSN, June 20).

Speakers made several references to the U.S. television crime drama during a panel discussion at the 2008 Euroscience Open Forum, highlighting the similarities and differences between their science and that of their fictional counterparts.

Nuclear forensics employs trained personnel and highly sophisticated technology to help determine the origin of nuclear and radioactive substances that are seized from smugglers or otherwise discovered in an unexpected location.  The answers lie in the characteristics of the item itself.

"Identifying the place of theft or diversion is key to preventing future thefts or diversions," said panel moderator Gabriele Tamborini, press officer for the European Commission's Institute for Transuranium Elements.  "Our scientists are working like CSI detectives, combining their skills in the field of nuclear forensics to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism."

The International Atomic Energy Agency from 1993 to 2007 recorded more than 1,300 cases of lost, discovered or seized nuclear and radioactive material.  In 16 cases dating back to 1992, authorities recovered weapon-grade material, Tamborini said.

The number of identified cases increased through much of this decade until last year, though one speaker cautioned that much of that could be due to better reporting by nations that participate in the IAEA illicit trafficking database.  Roughly 10 cases annually in recent years have involved actual nuclear material.

There is no way to know how many cases went unreported, said Klaus Mayer, head of nuclear forensics at the institute, a German-based branch of the European Commission's Joint Research Center.

"Obviously what we see is the tip of the iceberg but we don't know what is hidden," he said.

Mayer discussed one recent case to illustrate the forensics work of the institute.  It began when German authorities in 2007 recovered 14 uranium pellets from a garden outside a house in the town of Lauenforde (see GSN, March 2, 2007).

"The questions that arise in such a case are … how did the material get there, where did it come from, what was the intended use of the material initially and by the person who took it there, and how long has the material been around?" Mayer said.  "This is the set of questions that is asked every time nuclear material pops up in a garden, at an airport, at the border crossing station, wherever."

It takes longer than a 45-minute television episode to determine the answer, Mayer said.  Also, much of the work happens in a laboratory rather than at the scene of a crime.

The institute received the fuel pellets from Lauenforde late on Friday and began its examination the following Monday.  Forensics specialists began with a visual inspection of the pellets and took measurements to confirm that they were identical.  That was followed by chemical analysis of one item, showing that the pellet was enriched to 3.5 percent uranium 235, which is typical for material to be used as reactor fuel.

A battery of additional tests proved that the uranium was particularly pure, a clue to identifying the production facility; that the pellets were marked with numbers and had a particular geometry, providing information on the type of reactor at which they were to be introduced; and that all 14 pellets had imperfections, indicating that they would have been discarded without being used.

By comparing the clues gleaned from the items to information in the institute's database on uranium fuel pellets, investigators were able to identify a German fuel fabrication facility operated by industrial giant Siemens as the "unambiguous" source of the garden material, Mayer said.

The diversion would have occurred at the point at which quality control rejected the pellets, which tests showed had been produced in early 1991, Mayer said.  How the pellets ended up in a German garden was beyond the scope of the institute's research, but Mayer briefly explained that the homeowner apparently acquired them in a "drug exchange."

More importantly for the institute, the Siemens plant had been made aware of the diversion of material and could take steps to ensure it would not happen again.  "You don't want these thefts or diversions to be repeated in the future," Mayer said.

In another case, the institute was able to show that 300 grams of a plutonium-uranium powder mix seized in 1994 at the Munich Airport had originated in Russia, Mayer said.

The institute has also sought to help police by developing a "dedicated glove box" that would allow investigators to collect fingerprints from items contaminated by radiation without risking exposure.  Development is under way for procedures that would allow for safe DNA sampling under those circumstances, Mayer said.

While nuclear forensics follows a nuclear trail from its end to the beginning, the International Atomic Energy Agency works to ensure that nothing illicit is occurring at points of origin within its member states.

The goal of the safeguards program is to ensure that IAEA member states are providing accurate declarations of their nuclear activities and stockpiles, and that there are no undeclared operations taking place or materials being produced, said senior safeguards analyst Diane Fischer.

She likened trying to discover evidence of secret activity involving microscopic material to trying to find a particular type of jelly bean among hundreds or thousands of jelly beans spread across all eight halls of the conference center in Barcelona.

"You can imagine this is a pretty daunting task.  It's going to take a lot of time and you don't ever know when to stop," Fischer said.  "This is what we face every single day when we ask our laboratories to analyze and look for microscopic particles of uranium and plutonium on our swipe samples."

Those cotton swipes, applied directly by IAEA safeguards personnel to equipment in nuclear facilities, can tell the agency whether nuclear material is uranium or plutonium, whether it has been irradiated and whether it is weapon-grade, Fischer said.

It can be a tricky process -- sometimes agency staffers are faced with rooms that have been emptied of equipment or facilities that have been demolished, leaving them to determine the best remaining source for swipe material.

Samples are shipped for analysis at an IAEA laboratory near Vienna, Austria, along with 14 partner facilities in the Finland, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and other nations.  There, they undergo testing by highly sensitive techniques to detect uranium or plutonium.  All findings must be confirmed by two laboratories.

"Unlike CSI, when a piece of paper rolls off your machine, you don't look at it and say, ‘Oh my God, there's HEU from some country," Fischer said.

Instead, the results are studied and evaluated alongside the state declarations regarding their nuclear activities, inspectors' reports, publicly available information and other data to achieve a clear picture of a nation's atomic operations, she said.  The ultimate goal is to ensure those activities are peaceful.

July 22, 2008
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BARCELONA, Spain -- Nuclear forensics is a bit like the work done by the investigators of "CSI," except the substance in question is not blood but potentially dangerous radioactive material, specialists in the field said yesterday (see GSN, June 20).