Nuclear Techniques to Manage Crime


By Prof. Monish Gunawardana, On 10 December 1948, the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR). According to its Article 3, “every one has the right to life and liberty and security of person”. All of us are striving to be alive. Yet, the reality is that criminal elements have no respect for human life. Therefore, crime management is very essential for our survival, socio-political stability and human development. In the olden days, crime investigations were mainly driven by logical thoughts and unfussy investigation systems. Nowadays, criminals and terrorists are equipped with advanced technologies. Therefore, advanced scientific tools are more essential to save the lives of peace-loving members of our society. As a response to the growing crime rate in the world, the law and security enforcement authorities have begun to rely more on Genomics, Structural Biology, Analytical Chemistry, Forensic DNA Testing, Information Technology, and Nuclear Science to defeat crime. This article focuses on the usage of nuclear-based technologies in peace and security management. Atomic Testers The Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (AAS) is widely used in engineering, agriculture, food processing and pathological studies. It assists medical technologists to detect lead poisoning, mercury and trace metals. Currently it has proven to be one of the highly reliable tools in crime investigations. To trace the murderer (s) and toxic materials, forensic pathologists analyze samples which are obtained from contaminated sources. The examination of used ammunition or crime-remains are necessary to match the similar remains or materials collected by investigators. The AAS assists the forensic pathologist to determine the source, specification, material and date of production of the bullet, gun or pistol collected from the crime scene or other locations. AAS is a multiple use instrument that is commonly used in analytical laboratories, to measure the light absorbed emitted by atoms. This instrument plays a commendable analytical role in many fields, including crime investigation, because of its relatively low cost, simplicity and accuracy. Combined Tech Forensic scientists collect samples from crime scenes to establish the correlation between the crimes and criminals. They analyze evidentiary materials (e.g. artificial or organic materials) derived from the crime science. For instance, they can analyze the human hair collected from a crime science. Vast amounts of elements are found in human hairs. By analyzing a hair sample, forensic scientists can decide the profile of the owner. For example, zink is low in the hair of a pregnant woman and high in malnourished children and copper is high in an old person’s hair. Forensic scientists refine their tests by utilizing nuclear-based techniques like Nuclear Activation Analysis (NAA). This analytical process starts with the radiation of a sample-material by a powerful beam of neutrons from a research nuclear reactor. The aforesaid combined analytical process complements both techniques. Dr Sudarshan, a reputed Indian analytical chemist, believes that the ” use of nuclear-based analytical techniques such as nuclear activation analysis has tremendously strengthened forensic science”. Hence, these inter-disciplinary techniques help to track criminals and construct solid evidence against them. Radiation Monitors Nuclear smuggling and illicit trafficking are gradually emerging as a serious threat. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as of 31 December 2001, worldwide there have been 181 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials since 1993. Some of them could be used to fabricate atomic weapons. Sometimes, they can be mixed with conventional explosive devices to produce a dirty bomb (very primitive atomic weapon) to spread contamination across a wide area. They can be smuggled in a motor vehicle, train or airline carried in personal baggage. Nuclear-based Radiation Detection Monitors have been designed to stop criminals from carrying destructive atomic devices such as dirty bombs. For instance, the Metropolitan Police Department in the United Kingdom has employed radiation detectors and mobile ‘walk-through scanners’ to detect risky radioactive components. In addition, radioactive detectors have been installed at Heathrow, Gatwick and Waterloo international airports as well as other major ports and railway stations and major transport hubs. These screening units could be installed into motor vehicles and used as mobile radiation detectors to stop nuclear smuggling. Small Detectors Charlie Gentiles, an American engineer in collaboration with his colleagues have invented a nuclear-based mini-detector known as the PPPL Detector (Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Detector). It is built by combining a few other technological devices such as a solid-state detector, multi-channel analyzer, amplifier and personal digital assisitant (hand-held computer). This detector is programmable to alert to weapons-grade nuclear material. This means the detector can be adjusted to react to nuclear-based medical isotopes which cannot be used to make nuclear arsenals. PPPL-D is an excellent tool that can be used to screen motor vehicles or luggage or any other containers, to detect radioactive materials that are the key ingredients to fabricate nuclear arsenals. In addition, these miniature detectors can be installed at airports, seaports, passenger terminals, major national gateways and cross-border crossings to identify unauthorized radioactive substances such as uranium yellow cake or enriched uranium fuel. Raman Spectroscopy In comparison to the previous century, in this new millennium countries are exposed to unpredictable crimes and security hazards. Usually, the standard X-ray screening systems are used to monitor dangerous materials in passengers` baggage. Bedsides that, advanced X-ray systems are capable of identifying explosives in the baggage. Both of these X-ray screening systems fail to detect non-nitrate based explosives. In the meantime, we are witnessing unbelievable innovations in the fields of science and technology. One remarkable growth area is the Raman Spectroscopy, a laser-based technology. It is suitable for quickly detecting hazardous materials and explosives at city transit hubs, border posts, airports and seaports. Unlike the above-mentioned X-ray systems, Raman Spectroscopy, a nuclear-based screening device, can rapidly detect bottles and cans of explosives, flammable materials and harmful chemicals. In addition, it can examine containers without opening them. As of today many airports, railway stations, sports stadiums and strategic government buildings use this state-of-the-art security system. Drug Trafficking Drug trafficking and distribution is a heinous crime as well as a profitable business for criminals. Sometimes, the standard drug detecting techniques such as X-ray screens or trained dogs fail to detect drugs. But modern nuclear-based techniques like stable isotope-ratio measurements conducted on an isotope rationing mass spectrometer are more effective to address the illicit drug business. According to Dr Ehleringer of the Stable Isotope Ratio Facility for Environmental Research (SIRFER), Department of Biology, University of Utah, USA, the isotopes level (atomic elements) in drugs is a useful tool in determining the region of origin for both cocaine and heroin. The distinct isotope-ratio combinations could allow determining the region of origin for the major coca growing regions in the world. In addition, the differences in the carbon and nitrogen ratios of intercepted cocaine kilos can be examined. Moreover, the isotope ratio analyses can be applied to determine both source and trafficking information. International Efforts The United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) and the United Nations Centre for International Crime Prevention (CICP) are part of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It cooperates with various governmental and non-governmental organisations as well as with the business community. Its team of experts helps requesting states to become party to and give effect to the United Nations drug control conventions. UNDCP performs laboratory services, provides training materials and can refer those in need to relevant medical advice. In addition, the aforesaid UN agencies and IAEA promote research on advanced drugs, crime pevention and management tools including nuclear-based techniques. Social Stability According to the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights, “the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Furthermore, “every one has the right to life, liberty and security of persons”. These noble ideals will not be realized, if criminals are using advanced weapons or techniques. Additionally, the steady increment of criminal activities can decrease the morale and the competitiveness of nations. Modern criminals are well equipped with the advanced tools of science and technology. Hence, traditional crime management techniques have become handicapped in the hands of modern criminals. This adverse development could be addressed only by employing high-tech criminal investigation methods such as nuclear-based crime detection techniques.