Think Out Loud

New program aims to create next generation of nuclear forensic scientists

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Feb. 16, 2023 5:39 p.m. Updated: Feb. 23, 2023 10:39 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Feb. 16

The National Nuclear Security Administration has awarded $25 million to 16 universities across the U.S. to help cultivate and bring more students into nuclear forensics — the science of investigating nuclear materials for evidence regarding the materials’ source. Oregon State University is one of the several schools that are a part of the consortium and will receive $2.5 million over the next five years. Camille Palmer is an associate professor in OSU’s school of Nuclear Science and Engineering. She will also serve as the deputy director and help lead the program. She joins us to explain why nuclear forensics is important and to share her hopes for the future of the industry.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The National Nuclear Security Administration has awarded $25 million to 16 universities across the country. The money will go to train the next generation of nuclear forensic scientists and push the field forward. Nuclear forensics involves investigating nuclear materials with two big goals: nuclear security and nonproliferation. Oregon State University is a part of this consortium, a big part, it will receive $2.5 million over the next five years. It’s also home to one of the leaders of this collaboration. Camille Palmer is an associate professor in OSU’s School of Nuclear Science and Engineering. She’ll serve as the deputy director of this collaboration and she joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Camille Palmer: Thanks, Dave. Good to be here.

Miller: What’s your definition of nuclear forensics?

Palmer: It sounds so narrow and it is. I mean, there’s a specific goal in mind as you mentioned, but it’s also very broad. And the analogy, which is not perfect by any means, is truly like encountering a crime scene like you see on TV, where they have traditional forensics, like a fingerprint. And so any evidence that you can get from a scene of nuclear material, whether that’s before it’s been misused in a pre-detonation scenario or after the fact, that can help determine where that material originated, potentially how it’s been used. And those signatures though, and rather than fingerprints are nuclear in nature. So there have been modifications at the nucleus level. So it involves all sorts of scientists to help attribute this, to figure out this problem. So it’s a pretty exciting field.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the kinds of nuclear forensic work that’s happening right now, all over the country or all over the world as we speak?

Palmer: Yeah, that’s a great question. There is certainly an international effort. So the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as the United States, we send out people to train at Customs Border Control to look for nuclear material so it can be interdicted at the borders. So, I mean, there’s certainly the finding of the material which is part of the process. But then once you find it, how do we determine where it came from? And so that is where it can be tricky. There’s radio chemists at National Laboratories, where some of these samples can be sent back to. And there’s a very complex radiochemical analysis. And then there’s also the nuclear scientists, engineers, who need to understand the process of the nuclear fuel cycle and what does it mean, right? If there’s a certain enrichment, is this weapon usable? Is it not? And so there’s all these different types of questions that need to come together to provide useful information. And I don’t want to downplay the need for data scientists and all of this and machine learning and all of the exciting new areas to make this more efficient.

Miller: Well, I was struck in the press release about this new consortium by just the sheer diversity of scientific disciplines that are involved. And you just gave us a couple of them. How much collaboration is necessary for this kind of work to actually work?

Palmer: Well, if it wasn’t obvious, I guess, for my last statement, it is absolutely necessary. Like I can run all the codes I want, which is more on my end as an analyst, running computational physics to say what isotopes would you specifically expect to see in a particular used nuclear fuel? Just as an example. I can have all of that great data and it’s absolutely useless if we don’t have radio chemists and the equipment and the detection mechanisms to measure that, right? So it’s the matching the predictions with those measurements that can provide valuable information, which again, kind of beyond the scope of forensics, has passed sometimes off to an intelligence community depending on the scope and the incident itself.

Miller: But to go back to the fingerprint analogy which you noted, is it’s not perfect but it’s pretty good. How much data do we have or how much intelligence do we have for analysts to actually pinpoint with a good deal of certainty where material came from, whether it’s been you know used or not. How big and accurate is the library?

Palmer: That’s a great question and some of those libraries are certainly not accessible to the public in the university system, which makes this mission space a little more complicated as well . . .

Miller: You mean it would be in some special lab in DC or someplace with top security clearance?

Palmer: Exactly. But there is a compilation of spent fuel databases where they’ve evaluated a lot of used nuclear fuel. And what we can predict with fairly good accuracy is certainly ascertaining what type of reactor . . . for example, if some used nuclear fuel was interdicted somewhere - I can’t imagine that scenario because it would be pretty radioactive - but so there’s the radiological signature too. But even if you got that analyzed in the lab, you could determine, was this from a Russian VVER and was it removed 28 years ago, for example. And so we actually do these exercises in class because it’s fun, partially . . .


Miller: And scary. Fun . . . [Laughter]

Palmer: Yeah, you can determine the type of reactor it came from. You can’t necessarily say which specific one. But the science is there, for sure. I’ll get the analogy wrong, this is what a smoking gun [is], for example, it’s not going to be one piece of evidence, it’s going to be the collection of lots of information from lots of scientists and engineers.

Miller: A couple of times now you’ve talked about the possibility of interdicting, of finding and not letting it into say a port or or an airport. I mean, that’s obviously been a dirty bomb, that kind of scenario has been a terrifying one for many of us for decades now. But I don’t remember hearing too many stories of nuclear material, radiological material, being found at airports or ports. Is it happening and it’s not being talked about or it’s not happening?

Palmer: It is happening. And in fact, just in December, I think it was released to the media in January of this year, there was some Uranium found on a commercial flight in the U.K. So there was some tracing back of where this material originated. And it’s really hard to tell from the media, no offense, how dangerous it is and what was its intended use. And so I don’t have any insight into that specific case.

But then there was certainly post Cold War in the nineties, quite a bit of nuclear material trafficking and some of that was more weapons usable. And that is one mission space of forensics is this pre-detonation space. But there’s also the response and attribution of a post detonation scenario or event, where you go collect the debris and you bring that back as well. So all of that falls under this umbrella of nuclear forensics.

Miller: What’s the big idea then, behind this five year $25 million dollar grant that you’re going to be helping to oversee?

Palmer: One, I think with a lot of engineering and scientific disciplines, there is certainly concern for interest in human capital, right? We want to get students engaged early in this process and aware of these careers and get them into national labs, working on impactful problems. But there’s also the advancement of the science and this is where it can be very broad. I think they say the rapid turnaround - we’re not there yet - was one aspect that was called out where you don’t potentially have to send back samples to a national lab to be able to conduct some of this analysis on site.

Miller: So for example, in the scenario where a dirty bomb has gone off and there’s an intense desire to quickly find out where the material may have come from, the hope would be to be able to do some of the work that currently has to be sent to some other lab and it might take days. The hope is to do that on site in 24 hours?

Palmer: That would be ideal, yes. You don’t usually want to wait for these types of answers and these worst case scenarios, of course.

Miller: So what are the other big gaps in terms of research that this consortium hopes to tackle? It seems like speeding up some of the analysis is one of them. Are there other big areas that you’re excited about?

Palmer: Personally, the strength that I’d say Oregon State brings and the team we’ve put together is on the computational predictions and it’s not as honestly exciting to talk about, possibly. But to me it is a lot of multi-physics going on, that is you can predict using very high fidelity codes that can equally take weeks to run to get a very precise answer, but if you can speed that up, so there’s methods using reduced order models and certainly if we have enough database to bring in the data scientists, machine learning, to expedite that process as well, that’s very exciting. And then there’s all the methods and data that goes into these codes which are typically housed at national laboratories. That isn’t exciting, but sometimes the fundamental nuclear physics is great to understand the world. When it’s connected to this mission space, knowing you’re making an impact is to me very exciting.

Miller: That gets to my last question, which is about the pipeline of students, whether they’re undergrad or graduate students. What’s your pitch about why they should consider a career in nuclear forensics?

Palmer: We hope to be able to reach the spectrum of students. I mean, typically the more advanced students, they’re more heavily involved in research, but we also have undergraduate research opportunities and I think, naturally, students are attracted to making an impact in the world. And I would say, to tie this into our energy needs, nuclear energy, domestically and internationally, is going to be a part of the clean energy solution. And we want to leverage all the positive aspects of using nuclear technology, but to do that in a way where we can ensure that this is not being misused in any way or at least reduce that likelihood and deter any bad actors from misusing material.

Miller: Camille Palmer, thanks very much for your time today, I appreciate it.

Palmer: Thanks so much.

Miller: Camille Palmer is an associate professor in OSU’s School of Nuclear Science and Engineering and she’s the deputy director of a new consortium focused on educating the next generation of nuclear forensic scientists and improving the technology for nuclear security and nonproliferation.

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