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Nuclear Forensics: Plutonium Signatures Discovery Capability Launched

New equipment that will enable scientists to determine subtle differences in plutonium processing products was unveiled before Domestic Nuclear Detection Office sponsors.. Credit: Andrea Starr, PNNL

Nuclear forensics involves determining where illicit or smuggled radioactive material came from.  In the event of a nuclear weapon detonation, knowing where radioactive material came from can help investigators determine who’s responsible.

Rare capabilities at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are now being enlisted in the fight to prevent threats from those who might steal nuclear material.

The Plutonium Processing Signatures Discovery capability was jointly launched by PNNL and the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) this month, providing a significant technological advancement in nuclear forensics that will improve our ability to trace the origins of plutonium.

Plutonium in weapons usable forms can be produced through various processes. By replicating some of these different conversion processes in a specialized research facility, nuclear scientists can then characterize subtle differences in the resulting material. The differences, called signatures, are a due to the varied means of processing plutonium and can be used by the government to trace the material to where it was produced.

After analyzing small samples, PNNL will create a database of signatures related to each process for the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. The U.S. could then use the database to use to evaluate any plutonium that may be confiscated from smugglers.

This new capability will significantly improve our ability to trace the origins of plutonium, because it allows us to replicate individual nations’ processes.  This not only helps us identify where the radioactive material came from, but also allows us to predict forensic signatures of plutonium from a given process without having actual samples of those materials.

“The development of the Plutonium Processing Signatures Discovery capability is four years in the making and the result of a great partnership and close collaboration between PNNL, DNDO, and the nuclear forensics community,” noted Dr. Steven Ashby, Director of PNNL.

The new Plutonium Processing Signatures Discovery capability, along with other nuclear forensics clues and law enforcement and intelligence information, will help in identifying the origin of interdicted nuclear materials and the perpetrators responsible.

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