Nuclear CSI: scientists develop a new procedure to detect criminal nuclear activity

MU Research Reactor (MURR)
The MU Research Reactor (MURR) has been a crucial component to research at the university for more than 40 years.

Determining if an individual has handled nuclear materials, such as uranium or plutonium, is a challenge national defense agencies currently face.

The standard protocol to detect uranium exposure is through a urine sample; however, urine is able to only identify those who have been exposed recently.

Now, scientists at the University of Missouri have developed procedures that will better identify individuals exposed to uranium within 1 year.

Scientists and homeland security experts believe this noninvasive procedure could identify individuals who may be smuggling nuclear materials for criminal purposes.

The researchers collected hair, fingernail and toenail clippings from workers in nuclear research facilities from around the country.

Testing procedures developed were able to identify exposure to both natural and man-made sources of uranium.

According to the World Nuclear Association, naturally occurring uranium is a mixture of three isotopes, including uranium-238 (U-238), U-235 and traces of U-234.

U-238 accounts for over 99% of the isotopes found in nature; U-235 is the isotope necessary to create nuclear weapons or power a nuclear reactor.

U-235 is considered a fissile isotope, meaning the atom has the ability to split, yielding a large amount of energy.

Uranium that has been used as fuel in a nuclear power plant also contains the manmade isotope, U-236.

With this discovery, law enforcement official could use specialized equipment and identify individuals who have been exposed to special nuclear material within 48 hours.

Brockman is looking to expand his analysis with the national human radiobiological tissue repository (NHRTR) to further provide insight on how hair and nail samples could be used to monitor exposure to special nuclear material.

The MU Research Reactor has been a crucial component to research at the university for more than 40 years.

Operating 6.5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, scientists from across the campus use the 10-megawatt facility to not only provide crucial radioisotopes for clinical settings globally, but also to carbon date artifacts, improve medical diagnostic tools and prevent illness.

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Citation: Brockman J, et al. (2016). Measurement of Uranium Isotope Ratios in Keratinous Materials: A Noninvasive Bioassay for Special Nuclear Material. Analytical Chemistry, 88: 8765–8771. DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.6b02144.
Figure legend: This image is credited to MU News Bureau.