How Toenail Clippings Could Catch Nuclear Smugglers

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A urine test is the standard way to identify people exposed to nuclear materials, but urine only picks up recent exposure.

Scientists say it might be possible to identify exposure within one year based on hair, fingernail, and toenail clippings.

Toenail Clippings

“We were able to identify exposure to enriched uranium, which is used to make both nuclear fuel and weapons.”

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“We are working to develop a tool that law enforcement agencies in nuclear proliferation or smuggling investigations can use to identify individuals who have handled special nuclear material,” says John Brockman, associate professor of research in the University of Missouri Research Reactor Center. “The goal of our research was to determine if hair, fingernail clippings, and toenail clippings could be used to better detect uranium exposure.”

Brockman collected hair, fingernail, and toenail clippings from workers in nuclear research facilities from around the country. Testing procedures developed by Brockman and his team identified exposure to both natural and manmade sources of uranium.

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According to the World Nuclear Association, naturally occurring uranium is a mixture of three isotopes, including uranium-238 (U-238), U-235 and traces of U-234. U-238 accounts for over 99 percent of the isotopes found in nature; U-235 is the isotope necessary to create nuclear weapons or power a nuclear reactor. U-235 is considered a fissile isotope, meaning the atom has the ability to split, yielding a large amount of energy. Uranium that has been used as fuel in a nuclear power plant also contains the manmade isotope, U-236.

“Our technique was not only able to determine uranium exposure, but also the specific isotopes the individual has handled within the last year,” Brockman says. “We were able to identify exposure to enriched uranium, which is used to make both nuclear fuel and weapons, and U-236 which is suggestive of nuclear fuel reprocessing.”

With this discovery, law enforcement official could use specialized equipment and identify individuals who have been exposed to special nuclear material within 48 hours. Brockman is looking to expand his analysis with the national human radiobiological tissue repository (NHRTR) to further provide insight on how hair and nail samples could be used to monitor exposure to special nuclear material.

The study was published in Analytical Chemistry and funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and National Science Foundation.

Source: University of Missouri

Original Study DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.6b02144

Article by Jeff Sossamon-U. Missouri

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