The source of smuggled radioactive material or the plutonium in a nuclear detonation will be easier to trace with the launch of a new project at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The national lab in Richland will work with the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to process and analyze small samples of the radioactive isotope used in nuclear weapons.
Information will be used to create a database about plutonium from different sources.
The project has been four years in the making, said Steven Ashby, PNNL director.
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The work will be done in PNNL’s lab just north of Richland, the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory, also called the 325 Building, in the Hanford 300 Area.
By replicating different conversion processes at the lab in a secure area of the Hanford nuclear reservation, nuclear scientists can characterize subtle differences in the resulting material.
Depending on the way plutonium is processed, it can vary slightly in color and density.
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.
L. Wayne Brasure, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office
The unique characteristics are called “nuclear forensics signatures,” which provide information about the possible source of plutonium that is in a form that could be used in weapons.
“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,” said L. Wayne Brasure, acting director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, in a blog post.
Processing equipment, such as pumps, heating units, furnaces and precipitators, have been added to existing glove boxes at the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory.
Glove boxes allow researchers to reach their hands into thick gloves attached to portals to work with radioactive materials inside the box as they watch through thick, leaded glass windows that protect them from exposure to radiation.
Researchers will have the capability to replicate individual nation’s processes, a capability that “represents a significant technological advancement,” Brasure said.
The Plutonium Processing Signatures Discovery capability will be used to help train the next generation of nuclear scientists and radiochemists, according to PNNL.
One technician has been hired so far and some additional scientists and students may be added to the staff to work on the program.