Nuclear Sleuthing

Nuclear Forensics_Brittany Robertson_Photo Cropped
OSU Master’s student Brittany Robertson aspires to a career in nuclear forensics. (Photo: Jens Odegaard)

By Jens Odegaard

“There’s still too much material — nuclear, chemical, biological — being stored without enough protection.  There are still terrorists and criminal gangs doing everything they can to get their hands on it. And make no mistake, if they get it, they will use it; potentially killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, perhaps triggering a global crisis.”  –President Barack Obama, National War College, 2012

A NUCLEAR WEAPON IN THE HANDS OF TERRORISTS is the stuff of nightmares, especially for U.S. agencies charged with preventing a devastating attack. When security or law enforcement agents confiscate nuclear or radiological weapons or their ingredients being smuggled domestically or internationally, they must quickly trace them back to their source.

Enter, the science of nuclear forensics. Defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as “the ability to trace the source of interdicted materials to their place of origin,” nuclear forensics ranks as a “keystone” of U.S. anti-terrorism policy.

Now, Oregon State University is about to become a player in that effort. A new graduate emphasis in nuclear forensics is being launched in OSU’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics with funding from Homeland Security. Courses in nuclear materials science, nuclear forensics analysis and detection of special nuclear material will be added to existing core courses such as radiophysics, radiochemistry and applied radiation safety. Faculty expertise in nuclear engineering, radiation health physics, radiation detection and radiochemistry will anchor the program, along with state-of-the-art lab and spectroscopy facilities in the Radiation Center, says OSU researcher Camille Palmer, who will lead the nuclear forensics emphasis.

Brittany Robertson, who holds bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and psychology from Carnegie Mellon University, is poised to become the first OSU student to earn a Ph.D. in this up-and-coming field — just as soon as she finishes her master’s in nuclear chemistry.

“The use of nuclear materials in several capacities is being pursued, and the reality of the world is that not everyone doing so has honorable intentions,” says Robertson. “I believe in being proactive so that we don’t have to be reactive. A nuclear tragedy anywhere, whether intentional or accidental, has the potential to affect everywhere.”

Nuclear forensics (NF) is critical in interdiction of nuclear or radiological materials as well as analysis of post-detonation radioactive debris, according to Homeland Security. Through NF analyses, it’s possible to determine the physical, chemical, elemental, and isotopic characteristics of nuclear and radiological materials to identify how and where they were created.

“Almost by definition, nuclear forensics combines problem solving with innovation to form a field in which engineers, chemists, computer scientists, physicists, policymakers, diplomats, and others must work together to achieve something much bigger than themselves,” Robertson observes.

She says OSU’s nuclear forensics emphasis was launched at an ideal time for her. “I originally wanted to pursue a route similar to this one, but I couldn’t find a school with this nuclear forensics path when I first applied to graduate school,” she explains. “The fact that one is currently being developed, and I have the opportunity to be a part of it, is pretty amazing.”

Camille Palmer emphasizes OSU’s strengths this way: “Oregon State is one of a handful of universities in the world positioned to make a significant impact in nuclear forensics education and research. Our human capital, facilities and proximity to U.S. national laboratories make us a natural fit for a forensics program, and our goal is to continue to strengthen research collaborations to ensure that we are consistently relevant and productive in this field.”

Jens Odegaard is the Public Information Specialist for the OSU Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics.