Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is a critical provider of research, technology, and operations for the United States’ pre- and post-detonation nuclear forensics missions. We leverage more than 40 years of experience in radiochemistry, plutonium processing science, and nuclear material detection technologies.
PNNL’s capabilities help determine the origin of nuclear material or devices that could be used in nuclear or radiological attacks against United States interests. This includes our decades-long history in plutonium production science to support the pre-detonation mission. We also developed and operate a plutonium oxide processing testbed to discover new forensics signatures.
Additionally, PNNL maintains a laboratory system for the analysis of debris and trace materials in support of the post-detonation nuclear forensics mission. Measurements of actinide, fission product, and activation product analytes will aid the United States government in its assessment.
Our nuclear forensics capabilities span laboratories located in the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory, Physical Sciences Facilities, and Shallow Underground Laboratory, which encompass a Category II nuclear facility, high-activity radiological laboratories, and ultra-low background facilities.
What is nuclear forensics?
Safeguarding and securing nuclear material is a global concern, but in the event that safeguards and security measures fail, nuclear forensics becomes a useful tool in combating nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
Nuclear forensics experts assist law enforcement investigations by processing evidence that contains or is contaminated with nuclear or other radioactive materials. Such evidence can include both pre-detonation nuclear and radiological samples, and debris in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear detonation.
Experts may use nuclear forensics methodologies to uncover the process histories and ultimate origins of nuclear or radioactive materials. Gaining insight into the material’s place of origin and process history can contribute significantly to the determination of how and where control of material was lost so that potential security vulnerabilities associated with those facilities can be addressed. In the case of a detonated device, debris can be characterized for use in nuclear forensics data evaluation to determine pre-detonation device characteristics. A robust nuclear forensics capability also supports deterrence by discouraging terrorist elements or rogue state actors from engaging in nuclear terrorism.
Helping improve nuclear forensics capabilities around the world
PNNL partners with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Commission Joint Research Center, and the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration to help laboratories around the world test capabilities in nuclear forensics science, share best practices, evaluate the state of capabilities, and identify emerging technologies. Our nuclear forensics experts continue to develop and deliver an IAEA course that covers topics including sample receipt, physical measurements, gamma and alpha spectroscopy, and analysis. By participating in the Nuclear Forensics International Technical Working Group, our experts improve the capability of partner nations through collaborative materials exercises.
Nuclear forensics provides insight into the material’s place of origin and process history
Our researchers are investigating new forensic techniques, including new radiochronometry methodologies, to establish the provenance of a 2-inch cube of uranium believed to have been produced by the nuclear technology program of Nazi Germany.
Nuclear forensics experts at PNNL also work on collaborative efforts focused on improving fundamental nuclear data for applied science while supporting continued growth of the nuclear forensics capability. Some of the nuclear data measurements focused on improving fission product yields are using critical assemblies at the Nevada National Security Site. These measurements allow greater precision and accuracy for the fundamental nuclear data that are used in scientific calculations for nuclear forensics, nuclear power, and nuclear medicine.
Post-detonation nuclear forensics research and development
PNNL researchers are leading research and development efforts to improve sensitivity, data quality, and timelines of post-detonation nuclear forensics analysis. Areas of investigation include improved chemical separations, advances in mass spectrometry, low-level and coincidence radiation detection methods, and microanalysis of nuclear debris.
Building the next generation of nuclear forensics experts
We are building the next generation of nuclear forensics experts at PNNL by pairing senior experts with junior staff and by partnering with universities to provide internship opportunities.
More than 100 staff at PNNL contribute to the forensics missions in operations, research and development, training, and international engagement. For example, the PNNL plutonium testbed provides a great opportunity for senior and junior staff to work side by side in a real-world operational environment on nuclear forensics problems.