RICHLAND — A siren blared and lights flashed as an SUV drove through a radiation-monitoring station at a training center at Hanford.
It was the start of a fictitious case that would be solved by 26 visitors from around the globe who are spending two weeks in the Tri-Cities to learn more about the emerging field of nuclear forensics.
They’ll go home to countries from Vietnam to Mexico with information that can help them identify confiscated nuclear materials and possibly trace them to their origins, helping prevent nuclear proliferation and acts of nuclear terrorism.
“It’s a very new science, and we’re trying to stand it up internationally,” said Jon Schwantes, a senior scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. “Nuclear terrorism and proliferation is a global issue.”
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The need for the training, which is being offered for the second time at HAMMER by the National Nuclear Security Administration, is more than theoretical. The acronym stands for the Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed about 400 cases of smuggled, stolen and other criminal possession of nuclear materials since 1993. That includes at least 16 incidents involving weapons-usable enriched uranium or plutonium.
When suspect radioactive material is seized, such as at a border crossing, law-enforcement officials need to be able to investigate the incident as a possible crime. But traditional forensics labs aren’t equipped or experienced to handle and analyze nuclear material.
In the United States, for instance, the FBI turns to scientists at the Department of Energy (DOE) for support when cases require nuclear forensics.
But a scientist helping law enforcement with an investigation needs to learn new skills that can make or break a criminal investigation, such as maintaining chain of command.
“I gained an overview of all aspects of forensics — sampling, analyzing, summarizing results,” Jiri Janda, of the Czech Republic, said during the course. He’s a scientist and soldier who teaches at a defense university.
He’ll be introducing the information in his classes taught to military and civilian students.
Janda will also look at ways to change his country’s military procedures, including for chain of custody when the army conducts nuclear-forensics sampling and identification, he said.
In the sample case the students were following for two weeks, the SUV set off alarms as it crossed through a radiation-monitoring station, similar to ones Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has helped the DOE set up at border crossings and ports around the globe.
Students would practice using new technology, starting with a portable 3-D X-ray radiography equipment to see inside the bag without opening it in case it contained a bomb.
They would use two scientific techniques for the nuclear-forensic investigation of the bag’s radioactive contents: alpha spectrometry, which would require them to use chemistry to separate out a pure sample of the radionuclide for analysis; and gamma-ray spectrometry, which can be tricky because of background radiation and other factors.
They helped law enforcement crack the case, discovering they were dealing with two types of radioactive material. The evidence contained weapons-grade plutonium and barium 133.
The barium 133, which is used in law-enforcement instruments to detect items hidden in containers such as gas tanks, in this case was being used to mask the plutonium and make it more difficult to detect.
But determining what material was being smuggled helped law enforcement only to half-solve the crime. The next step was for students to determine where the material came from by consulting materials databases for similarities to their evidence samples and reaching out to the neighbors of the fictitious country where the case was set.
“Not every country needs advanced capabilities, but every country needs some rudimentary capabilities in nuclear forensics to be able to categorize nuclear or radioactive material out of regulatory control,” Schwantes said.
For more advanced analysis in real cases, workshop participants are encouraged to reach out to the Nuclear Forensics International Technical Working Group and draw on new contacts made at the workshop.
Students in the class included participants with a mix of science, regulatory and law-enforcement backgrounds from Algeria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
“This was the first time I have had access to these types of techniques of specific detection,” said Ligia Ruiz, a radiochemist for the Mexico National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.
The information she learned will be helpful as Mexico builds its nuclear-forensics capability, she said.
“The intention is to learn as much as possible and introduce it into our procedures in order to save people,” Janda, from the Czech Republic, said.