National Nuclear Security Administration

Nuclear forensics, explained: NNSA analytic chemists help keep the world safe

February 25, 2016

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One of the gravest threats the world faces is the possibility that terrorists will acquire nuclear weapons or the necessary materials to construct a weapon. Part of the work of NNSA’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation and the national laboratories is to support investigations into the diversion, trafficking, or illicit use of those materials using laboratory analysis and characterization of nuclear materials, commonly known as nuclear forensics.

This month, analytical chemists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) explain nuclear forensics in the cover feature article of the journal Analytical Chemistry. The publication’s podcast also features an interview one of the paper’s authors, LLNL Nuclear Forensics/Materials Analysis Associate Program Leader Michael J. Kristo.

What distinguishes nuclear forensics from traditional forensics, Kristo said, is the specific questions it is intended to answer.

“What is the material? What was its intended use? Where was the material last processed? Where might it have been produced or stored? And who might have been associated with the material?” Kristo said. “Analytical chemistry is employed throughout the process to make measurements of materials chemical and physical properties and composition to allow investigators to draw nuclear forensic conclusions relevant to those questions.”

The paper explains that because there is not currently any single method for identifying all unknown nuclear materials for forensic purposes, scientists must gather different types of information using multiple analytical techniques. The authors demonstrate the importance of nuclear forensics and the work NNSA and its labs do by detailing two occasions in which LLNL’s analytical chemistry techniques helped identify and trace the origins of nuclear material in international incidents.

Read the article in Analytical Chemistry here, and learn more about LLNL’s analytical chemists here.