Nuclear Forensics


When I was a child, I never had any ideas about my dream job like most other children do (a doctor ... a nurse ... a policeman ...). However, everything became clear when I was 13 and had my first lesson in chemistry. It was as if I?d been hit on the head with a bolt from the blue ... I wanted to become a chemist!

So with this "obsession" I went to the University of Helsinki to study chemistry. After 3 years of general chemistry studies, I had to specialise in one area. Because I didn?t want to follow all the other chemistry students and choose analytical, organic, or inorganic chemistry, I took a course in radiochemistry. And that was it--I had found my area of interest for sure. Radiochemistry was not just "cooking" (synthesizing compounds or solutions) like all of the other chemistry branches. It involved a certain kind of "danger", namely radioactivity. So I graduated in radiochemistry in 1994 and continued to work in the Radiochemistry Laboratory at the University of Helsinki.

Then a fortunate coincidence happened when I was participating in a conference in Germany. I met my future boss (now retired "guru" in nuclear chemistry, Mr. Lothar Koch), and he proposed that I do a Ph.D. at the Institute for Transuranium Elements ( ITU), in Karlsruhe, Germany. ITU is one of seven research institutes that belong to the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission. ITU's mission is to protect European citizens against risks associated with the handling and storage of highly radioactive elements. Its prime objective is to serve as a reference centre for basic actinide research, to contribute to an effective safety and safeguards system for the nuclear fuel cycle, and to study technological and medical applications of transuranium elements. The other institutes of JRC are located in Ispra (Italy), Geel (Belgium), Petten (the Netherlands), and Sevilla (Spain). You can read more about JRC in a recent Next Wave article.

I didn?t have to think too long to make my decision, because by going to ITU, I would "kill two birds with one stone", that is, stay abroad for a while and, more particularly, do a Ph.D. thesis. And as my boss was heavily involved in the newly "founded" discipline of nuclear forensics, it was natural that I started my studies in that area.

Nuclear forensic science deals with smuggled or otherwise criminally diverted nuclear materials. A number of radiometric, mass spectrometric, and materials science-related analytical techniques are used for analyses, with the aim of finding out the intended use, origin, last legal owner, and smuggling route of the material. This helps law enforcement service in the prosecution of the criminal, but it also prevents further diversion from the source if the origin of the material is revealed.

My thesis involved developing new parameters for origin determination of nuclear materials, mainly plutonium, by mass spectrometric techniques. This research also benefited from my previous experience of working on isotopic and concentration measurements of uranium fuel at the University of Helsinki.

The origin determination of nuclear material is very challenging work. It is like finishing a puzzle, as there are many parameters or characteristics which can tell you the origin. Piece by piece you get a more comprehensive picture about the material. However, in order to achieve a "watertight" picture, new characteristics in nuclear materials have to be sought continuously in order to confine to a minimum the number of possible countries of origin, so that one day we can say without hesitation, "this nuclear material is coming from your country, because ..."

The work is very interesting, because it?s far away from routine chemistry. And since it is relatively new research territory, there are no written rules to guide you in a study, which means there are a lot of new ideas and research. Some might consider this a downside of the job because it really requires persistence, and sometimes when nothing seems to work as expected, you are ready to "pack up and go". Most of the time, however, the work is very rewarding. The research also involves co-operation with different institutions (e.g., Interpol, Europol, the World Customs Organisation, and the International Atomic Energy Agency), which in turn gives me a much broader perspective of my research. Another positive aspect of the work is the international atmosphere at ITU, because the staff is a mixture of European citizens.

I hope that more young students will discover this interesting subject of radio/nuclear chemistry. As long as there is nuclear energy, there is also work to be done in the related areas.

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