Canada is spearheading a multinational effort to engineer new certified reference materials, which will advance scientific and technical efforts in nuclear material security, safeguards and non-proliferation.
What is a certified reference material?
The NRC is recognized internationally as a producer of a variety of certified reference materials (CRMs). CRMs are standards that provide the highest level of accuracy and metrological traceability of products. They are invaluable tools for national and international research programs and analytical laboratories.
The Nuclear Forensics Capability Advancement Project (NFCAP) was a government-wide research and development initiative that ran from 2016 to 2020. Its aim was to enhance Canada's national nuclear forensics capabilities by addressing specific science and technology needs, including supporting the ability to make world-leading measurements. The NFCAP consisted of 6 separate project streams, with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission as the overall lead for the NFCAP. The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) was the lead for the production of uranium certified reference materials.
What is nuclear forensics?
Nuclear forensics is the scientific analysis of nuclear or other radioactive materials, or evidence contaminated with radioactive materials, for the purposes of contributing to the broader investigation of a nuclear security event.
Nuclear forensics provides the ability to assess, through analytical means, radioactive and nuclear material signatures, evidence contaminated with radioactive/nuclear material, scientific and technical information related to radioactive/nuclear material, prescribed information and/or prescribed equipment, and detectable signals characteristic of nuclear activities and processes, including nuclear detonations. It supports the broader investigation and subsequent prosecution (as applicable) of a nuclear security event and the overall goal of nuclear forensics is to link radioactive/nuclear materials and activities to people, places and events.
13 laboratories from around the world joined forces to develop a CRM
A comprehensive gap analysis by NFCAP partners identified that no CRM was available for uranium ore concentrate (UOC), which is one of the first steps in the nuclear fuel cycle. UOC is an intermediate product between uranium ore, which is extracted at uranium mines, and uranium oxide, which is used as fuel in nuclear reactors. High-precision chemical profiling of this material supports source attribution, providing evidence needed to assess whether a uranium sample was mined and processed in Canada or comes from another country. At the heart of reliable chemical measurements are certified reference materials, so a CRM for UOC provides the "ground truth" for all subsequent uranium analyses. The CRM will help ensure that the chemical signatures measured at nuclear forensics laboratories are reliable and can stand up to the strictest scrutiny.
For more than 40 years, the NRC's Chemical Metrology group has developed CRMs and this project brought the team, and its internationally recognized measurement science expertise, to work on the specific challenge of nuclear forensics.
This work was advanced through a multi-stakeholder approach, involving government agencies, national and international partners and academia, in alignment with Canada's broader science and technology agenda.
Beyond nuclear forensics, this UOC CRM has applications for the uranium mining industry, enabling improved chemical analysis for producers. It also may be of interest to general analytical laboratories as it establishes a reference point for the heaviest naturally-occurring element.
To learn more about the work of the NRC and the Chemical Metrology group, read the following article: Certification of uranium isotope amount ratios in a suite of uranium ore concentrate certified reference materials