Monday, November 11, 2013

CSI: Nuclear

Bruce Pierson has 90 seconds to escape the maze of concrete blocks. He starts at the back of the lab, next to the neutron generator that will start up once the area is clear. Then he weaves through the alcoves, hitting checkpoints that ensure that no one is hidden away working, though they should be alerted by the flashing lights and wailing siren. Anyone trying to come into the area is sensed and admonished by a recording. Once Pierson is out, he locks the door, and the experiment can begin.

Pierson in the maze. The concrete structure on the left contains the neutron source.

In an era of sophisticated terrorist organizations and rogue states attempting to develop nuclear weapons, efforts to prevent nuclear attacks have focused on controlling the materials that could be used for bombs. But if one of these groups did manage a nuclear attack, what information could authorities gain from a careful examination after the blast? Could the remnants left behind reveal anything about the source of the weapons-grade materials?

Pierson, a graduate student in the department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS), is finding out. “In a situation where a nuclear bomb has gone off, you could go to ground zero get a piece of the blast debris from the melt glass underneath the crater. Trapped inside of that glass are the actinides that were used in the weapon,” he explained.