Focus on Technology
2:00 pm
Wed November 13, 2013

UC students help track nuclear material

International nuclear weapons inspectors are preparing to get a closer look at two Iranian facilities long suspected of having the capability of producing nuclear weapons. An agreement worked out Monday, with the International Atomic Energy Agency, failed to gain access to one of the most controversial sites, the Parchin military site, southwest of Tehran. The New York Times reports:

  • Some suspect the Gachin mine may be linked to Iran's military
  • The Arak heavy-water plant could produce plutonium

David Albright is founder and president of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security. He told PBS NEWSHOUR Iran could "have enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb in as little as one and a half months."

There are other nations jumping on the nuclear bandwagon:

  1. NATO says Saudi Arabia is now ready to take delivery on nuclear weapons built in Pakistan.
  2. North Korea, after launching missile tests, is now examining an electromagnetic pulse weapon to wipe out electronics in South Korea.
  3. South Africa plans to dramatically increase its nuclear energy capability by building new plants.

This concern has U.S. scientists trying to track left-over nuclear material all around the globe, as reported by WVXU in April.

University of Cincinnati students are studying at national labs to identify and record nuclear material. Dr. Henry Spitz, professor nuclear and radiological engineering, leads the Nuclear Forensics Program at UC. "We're trying to train students so that they are able to analyze unknown types of samples to determine its signatures."

  • Who made it?
  • Where was it made?
  • When was it made?
  • What part of the nuclear cycles does it come from?
  • Is it different than natural radiation that exists all over the globe? 

For practice his students take samples near the former Fernald Uranium Processing Plant (Ross Township) and the former Mound Plant (Miamisburg). Graduate student Kevin Lavelle worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and studied unexpected places nuclear material turns up, like rusty metal and lichen. Another student, James Bowen will soon continue his research at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He's looking at the BOMARC Incident and studying particles originating from that nuclear weapons accident and how, if left in the ground, they will affect the public.