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The growing threat of nuclear terrorism by extremist groups, independent or supported by states, has been urging law enforcement agencies as academic researchers to develop advanced means for screening suspects exposed to nuclear materials.

National American defense agencies currently face the feat of determining if an individual has handled nuclear materials such as uranium or plutonium. Although uranium exposure is possible to find through a urine sample, urine is able to only identify those who have been recently exposed. Scientists at the University of Missouri have developed procedures that will improve the ability to identify individuals exposed to uranium within a period of one year.
“We are working to develop a tool that law enforcement agencies will be able to use and identify individuals who have handled special nuclear material,” said John Brockman, associate professor of research in the MU 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.”

“Our technique was not only able to determine uranium exposure, but also the specific isotopes the individual has handled within the last year,” Brockman said. “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.”

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.
According to the university’s website, the study “Measurement of Uranium Isotope Ratios in Keratinous Material: A Noninvasive Bioassay for Special Nuclear Material,” recently was published in Analytical Chemistry and was funded by a grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and a National Science Foundation grant.