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April Gillens

Nuclear forensics turns intern into homeland security detective

April Gillens

April Gillens prepares samples for analysis in an isotope ratio mass spectrometer as part of her research internship for the Department of Homeland Security to determine stable isotope “signatures” that could help stop illicit trafficking of nuclear materials.

Buried deep within the seemingly innocent machinery of a modern industrial plant, an organization stealthily goes about its work, reprocessing spent reactor fuel rods into material for nuclear terrorism—a “dirty” bomb, perhaps, or maybe a functioning nuclear weapon. Success seems only a matter of time, but suddenly their work is shut down by agents who appear out of nowhere, apparently with complete knowledge of the “secret” operation.

The plot for a major motion picture or a storyline ripped from an espionage thriller? No, this is science fiction rapidly becoming science fact in the field of nuclear forensics. And one of the warriors on the front line is April Gillens, an intern in the Earth and Environmental Science Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Gillens admits that her interest in nuclear forensics is the latest in a series of educational and career choices that started in quite a different area. “When I first enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, my goal was to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an agricultural engineer,” said Gillens, now beginning her post-baccalaureate position at Los Alamos.  “But, an early internship in microbiology convinced me that I didn’t want to be tied to a wet laboratory all day so I started looking for other opportunities to use my background in biological engineering.”

What she found was the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Scholarship and Fellowship Program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education. “When I received the scholarship, I was immediately taken with all of the opportunities DHS offered, including a continuing internship program,” said Gillens. “During my first internship, I became very aware of a number of homeland security issues and, more importantly, how I could contribute to resolving them.”

One such topic was nuclear forensics, which investigates illicit trafficking or use of nuclear materials. If an unknown nuclear product is found, nuclear forensic techniques can be used to determine how, where, and when it was made, and, perhaps most importantly, its intended purpose.

Now in her second internship, Gillens is working with a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop a series of isotopic signatures that can be used to help locate the kind of hidden nuclear operation described in the fictional example above.

“We know that various techniques can be used for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, but specific stable isotope signatures can be imparted at various known steps,” said Gillens. “Rather than focusing on a final stable isotope signature when the reprocessing is complete, our goal is to identify and categorize all of the signatures between the start and conclusion of the process.”

Since many of the chemicals and solvents used in nuclear reprocessing can also be used for legitimate industrial purposes, Gillens’ team is focusing only on the signatures that are unique to nuclear material degradation. 

Such nuclear “fingerprints” can help pinpoint illegal operations, both during reprocessing and after the material is complete. They have also helped point Gillens toward a new career. 

After completing her internship and a year of additional work at Los Alamos, she hopes to enroll in a doctoral program in nuclear forensics, targeting universities participating in the DHS-sponsored Nuclear Forensics Graduate Fellowship program. 

“Once I was introduced to nuclear forensics, I felt like a detective, and I still carry that same excitement today,” said Gillens. “Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ DHS is giving me that ability to make a difference.”