In the heyday of ORNL's isotope program, the Laboratory produced
and sold 99 different radioisotopes and made 1200 to 1500 shipments
per month. Since the mid-1940s, radioisotopes from ORNL
have been distributed worldwide to promote the peaceful use of
radioactive materials. Other isotopes are used in agriculture, transportation,
space exploration, public safety, and environmental protection.
ORNL staff are mining the Lab's radioisotope production records to obtain information on radiation sources that contain californium, cesium, and strontium, which have relatively long half-lives. Other isotopes from ORNL have such short half-lives that they are no longer of concern. Staff also are analyzing ORNL-produced material and foreign material in a search for isotope "fingerprints" such as the distribution of radioisotopes and traces of chemicals. Even the tap water used to process certain isotopes may be a clue to the origin of the material.
In yet another area, the team is involved in "forensics and attribution" work for the Department of Homeland Security—figuring out where the radiation source came from and who is responsible for incorporating it in a dirty bomb. The goal is a database that can track over the past decades customers who purchased and packaged ORNL radioisotopes for distribution.
Using mass spectrometry, ORNL researchers hope to identify isotope signatures—telltale ratios of various isotopes in reactor fuel and spent fuel—to help them quickly pinpoint the country of origin for a dirty bomb, should one ever be detonated. In this instance, they hope their research will never be needed.
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