Within the nuclear weapons design laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, the historic mission for nuclear and radiochemists was to support the nuclear test program. Our chemists developed and implemented techniques to gauge the performance of nuclear devices by analyzing the radioisotopes produced. This work led to advances in many areas of radiochemistry, such as chemical separation science, radiation detection, and instrument automation. Nuclear testing may have ended two decades ago, but nuclear and radiochemistry remain among the Laboratory’s signature capabilities. The opportunities for applying radiochemistry expertise to pressing national needs have, if anything, expanded, especially over the past few years. Ongoing research performed by our outstanding nuclear and radiochemists has applications in national and global security, energy security, environmental stewardship, and human health.
My involvement with the Laboratory’s radiochemistry experts and resources began during my tenure as director of Livermore’s Forensic Science Center. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, agencies in Washington, DC, including the newly established Department of Homeland Security, showed an increased interest in forensic science and the unique capabilities at Livermore and the other national laboratories. Livermore worked closely with these organizations to determine how the Laboratory’s expertise might be applied to chemical, biological, and nuclear forensic analysis.
As described in the book Nuclear Forensic Analysis, by Livermore scientists Ken Moody, Ian Hutcheon, and Pat Grant, “The primary technical objective of nuclear forensic analysis is to determine the attributes of questioned radioactive samples. Reduced to simple terms, the salient forensic questions for a nuclear sample are: What is it? What was its origin? How did it get there? Who was involved?” Answering these questions requires not only a fundamental understanding of radiochemistry and nuclear science but also experience with real-world materials and samples, which makes nuclear forensics a natural fit with the Laboratory’s strengths.
With surging interest in radiochemistry research, Livermore’s management found that the infrastructure supporting this work needed modernizing to better serve the diverse customer base. Building 151, the home of Livermore radiochemistry, houses a one-of-a-kind nuclear counting facility and laboratories designed specifically for radiochemistry experiments, but these facilities were built in another era to support one programmatic mission. Meeting the multi-programmatic national nuclear security challenges of the 21st century has led us to improve or build new laboratories in the facility. The improvements thus far have paid dividends, and we are planning to modernize other laboratories as funding is identified. Already, the revitalized program has allowed us to better support existing projects and sponsors and has attracted new researchers, collaborators, and sponsors.
In addition to reinvesting in our radiochemistry capabilities, we have been examining how we can transcend traditional disciplinary and organizational boundaries to better leverage other Laboratory capabilities, including mass spectrometry, environmental radiochemistry, and diagnostic development. For instance, we have fostered closer collaboration between staff at the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry—an invaluable research tool—and radiochemistry researchers. Responding flexibly to changing national priorities while delivering the outstanding science and engineering results expected of us requires strategic investment in our infrastructure, associated capabilities, and staff.
A reinvigorated radiochemistry program and facilities benefit the entire Laboratory and beyond. As described in Radiochemistry Renaissance, Livermore scientists are pursuing a number of innovative nuclear and radiochemistry research efforts with wide-ranging application. For instance, new techniques for characterizing radioactive target components are generating high-fidelity data from stockpile stewardship experiments, and careful measurements of nuclear reaction products may eventually benefit nuclear reactor safety. An automated chemical separation technique will enhance our capabilities for experimental diagnostics at the National Ignition Facility, nuclear forensics in support of national security, and the search for superheavy elements. Finally, by implementing more realistic nuclear forensics exercises, we will be better able to rapidly and accurately identify nuclear materials.
Radiochemistry is again stepping into the forefront of science at the Laboratory. Livermore’s nuclear and radiochemists will undoubtedly make key contributions to the institution’s missions in the years ahead.