New Nuclear Forensics Signature Discovery Capability Will Help Trace Origins of Plutonium


April 17, 2017

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) joined with partners at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to launch the Plutonium Processing Signatures Discovery capability.  The new capability, the result of a four-year effort, represents a significant technological advancement in nuclear forensics that will improve our ability to trace the origins of plutonium.  Nuclear forensics involves determining where illicit or smuggled radioactive material came from.  In the event of a nuclear weapon detonation, knowing where radioactive material came from can help investigators determine who’s responsible.

There are different ways to process plutonium.  These varied processes can produce slightly different characteristics in plutonium, such as the color and density.  These unique characteristics found in nuclear materials are referred to as “nuclear forensics signatures.”  This new capability will significantly improve our ability to trace the origins of plutonium, because it allows us to replicate individual nations’ processes.  This not only helps us identify where the radioactive material came from, but also allows us to predict forensic signatures of plutonium from a given process without having actual samples of those materials.

The new Plutonium Processing Signatures Discovery capability, along with other nuclear forensics clues and law enforcement and intelligence information, will help in identifying the origin of interdicted nuclear materials and the perpetrators responsible.

As Dr. Steven Ashby, Director of PNNL, said, “The development of the Plutonium Processing Signatures Discovery capability is four years in the making and the result of a great partnership and close collaboration between PNNL, DNDO, and the nuclear forensics community.”