Nailing the culprits
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On May 29, 1999, Bulgarian customs agents detained a fidgety man in a car who claimed to have come back from a two week trip in Turkey and was then moving towards Moldova, but who curiously had no luggage to speak of.
Suspicious, the agents searched his car and discovered an air-compressor in his trunk, inside which was a strange, cylindrical, lead container. The man offered the agents money but they chose to open the container to find a mysterious yellow powder. Then they immediately called higher authorities.
Bulgarian scientists teamed up with colleagues abroad and found the yellow powder was in fact about 5 grams of uraniumó "fine enough to be ingested if you throw it up in the air".
In the last two decades, law enforcement agencies throughout the world have apprehended about 15 kilograms of illicitly trafficked radioactive material fit to be used in making nuclear bombs, and a host of "nuclear forensics" scientists have aided them track the origin, or origins, of the seized material.
One such scientist, Ian D Hutcheon, who is associated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and who has helped the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) crack several such cases, was at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, last weekend to share the history and processes involved in what he defines as "an emerging and inexact science". He had come from Bangalore, where he had discussed, with other scientists, safety issues regarding nuclear material from India's growing nuclear power industry.
Hutcheon, currently deputy director of the Glenn T Seaborg Institute, Livermore, US, was one of the scientists involved in tracking the origin of the 1999 seizure in Bulgaria; the analysis of the material and the container it came in showed it probably came from a specific location in eastern Europe. Interestingly, an analysis of another seizure of uranium in France two years later showed it also probably came from the same place.