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Scientists use 'trinitite' from 1945 to help decode nuclear blasts

Samples taken from the US site of the Trinity atomic bomb test allow scientists to better understand how to track the source of a detonated nuclear weapon.

Allen Yu, a student from Diamond Bar, Calif., shows examples he found of Trinitite, sand that was transformed into a radioactive green glassy substance by the first atomic bomb test sixty years ago, at the Trinity Site at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Newscom/File

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It's called trinitite: a glassy byproduct of the searing heat that cooked the desert at the White Sands Proving Ground in 1945 when the United States conducted its first atomic-bomb test.

Now, researchers have taken a fresh look at this detritus and found that they can glean the kind of information that could be valuable in figuring out how a detonated nuclear device was built and perhaps where key ingredients came from.

Such a capability has long been a focus of efforts to improve scientists' ability to trace the origin of a device used in a terrorist nuclear attack. But much of the work done so far has been by US weapons scientists who have been reluctant to speak in much detail about how well their tools work.

Now, a team of scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has demonstrated an ability to analyze post-blast debris for potentially valuable evidence, and has openly published the results.

The work represents "a signpost that says: Look, this is what we can possibly get" out of debris samples, says Albert Fahey, a physicist at NIST's lab in Gaithersburg, Md.

The next step is to analyze a wider variety of post-blast debris, "then we can decide what we really need to know" to make the most out of the analytical approach the team used, he says.

Nuclear-weapons scientists have analyzed post-explosion debris for decades, but usually with an eye toward evaluating the effectiveness of the weapons they've built, or in the case of above-ground tests by another country, to determine what the explosive yield was, Dr. Fahey says. Such has been the case with trinitite.

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