Lab Advancements: Rapid assessment for crisis response

Posted: February 11, 2013 - 3:19pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 9, Issue 2 | 2013

A proper and effective response to a nuclear disaster, like the one at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, depends on the initial assessment of the event's severity. That initial assessment, and the potential to save lives, relies on accurate and timely measurements of nearby soil, water and surfaces.

The measurements are currently acquired by a manual process — collect a soil sample, process it, digest it in acid, wait — that works in 12-sample batches. Add in analysis time, and two researchers using these techniques can complete roughly 100 samples in a 24-hour period.

Researchers at Y‑12 and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are working to dramatically increase that throughput — to 10,000 samples a day for two operators.

“We're optimizing the chemical process and developing instrumentation to enhance rapid response to a massive number of samples,” explained James Bradshaw of Y‑12's Analytical Chemistry Organization. “This research has potentially significant benefits for crisis response.”

Jennifer Charlton performs much of the experiment and development work as part of her UT doctoral thesis. “Current actinide separation methods allow for the isolation of only one actinide, such as uranium, at a time,” Charlton said. “We've modified the chemistry to include the rest of the actinides.”

Actinides — elements 89 through 103 on the periodic table — are the radioactive elements of interest to researchers and crisis responders. After an event, first responders need to know which areas are affected and how badly. By detecting specific actinides, responders can act quickly and efficiently to provide relief and assistance.

“We've also taken the manual actinide separation process and automated it,” Charlton said. “Instead of manually transferring samples, chemicals and test tubes, our system utilizes robotics to streamline the process and allow large batches to be analyzed simultaneously.” And, through the use of advanced mass spectrometry techniques that can detect actinide quantity and type simultaneously, what would normally require multiple detection stages now needs only one.

The successful modifications came, as many scientific discoveries do, by trial and error. Charlton estimates the researchers ran more than 150 experiments in four or five months. “After reading current procedures and published articles, we started running experiments, increasing the amount of this or decreasing the amount of that, to see what happened,” she said.

Bradshaw and Charlton ultimately found the right combination of chemicals to separate all actinides simultaneously, resulting in a greater amount of data coming out of each sample analysis. That, combined with the team's work to automate the once-manual process, will allow field researchers to gather and analyze as much data and information as they can in as little time as possible. In the event of a disaster where many people are exposed, this technology can rapidly identify those individuals whose exposure levels merit further medical treatment.

“Rapid and accurate high-throughput actinide analysis will benefit National Nuclear Security Administration researchers, other Y‑12 analytical chemistry processes and, eventually, first responders,” Bradshaw said. “If Fukushima were to happen a year from now, we'd be there to analyze the soil, water and possibly people with these methods.”