New Noninvasive Procedure Could Help CSIs ID Criminal Nuclear Activity

New research has the potential to quickly identify people exposed to fissionable nuclear material over course of the previous year. The new test developed at the University of Missouri in Columbia is a huge advance over existing tests. Currently CSIs use a urine test that only detects recent exposure.

Forensic Magazine described this exciting new research conducted at the UM Research Reactor Center. Professor John Brockman and his team collected fingernail and toenail clippings and hair from workers exposed to uranium in nuclear research facilities around the country.

The team developed testing procedures that could identify uranium exposure and differentiate between types of uranium found naturally and that produced during nuclear fuel reprocessing.

The work has major implications for national security, since it should enable CSIs to determine if someone has been exposed to enriched uranium used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

The work hinged on identifying the specific types (isotopes) of uranium. The different types of uranium include three types found naturally:

  • U-234 which is found in trace amounts
  • U-238 which accounts for more than 99% of the uranium found in nature
  • U-235 which is necessary to power a nuclear reactor or create nuclear weapons

Finding U-235 reveals a great deal since the atom can split and yield a large amount of energy. In addition, there is a manmade isotope—U-236—that is used in nuclear power plants.

The new technique not only determines whether someone has been exposed to uranium, but also which isotopes the person handled over the previous year. Thus, using the right equipment should allow CSIs to ID individuals who have been exposed to special nuclear material over the previous year within two days of the test.

Given the perilous state of the world and the proliferation of nuclear materials by rogue nations, this research will help to make the world a safer place.