Note: Although not our first Chemistry post, this post by first-time contributor Waqas Rasheed, who is a Chemistry Major, is more descriptive about the applications of something that many students study very early on in their science degrees. The post, written before the fiasco in Japan, has greater relevance due to the crisis. A discussion on how these techniques should be used even more frequently would be pertinent. Enjoy and please leave an encouraging comment!
Isotopic analysis employs mass spectrometry to calculate the composition of all the isotopes in a particular sample. This analysis is particularly useful in archaeology (where the bones of animal/human species are consulted for their oxygen and nitrogen composition which helps measure age, dietary preferences, and even migrationary trends), astronomy (where the compositions of the meteorites and rocks on planetary surfaces are analyzed to give useful information about origins and behaviors of planets as a whole), diagenesis, forensics (where the hair strands are analyzed) and carbon-dating. As discussed here, isotopic analysis is also employed in areas like abandoned military sites and sites for nuclear waste materials where the amount of the radioactive material needs to be analyzed for toxicity.
The military sites where the nuclear tests have been carried out, or where the nuclear reactor waste is disposed would needs isotopic analysis to check for uranium depletion, which poses a major risk to the environment as well as the people living nearby. The chemical toxicity of depleted uranium is about a million times greater in vivo than its radiological hazard. Depleted uranium typically is used to make nuclear bombs, and it also finds its usage being made in ammunition (armor-piercing incendiary rounds, and so forth).
This military usage makes it highly relevant in war-stricken areas such as the Gaza Strip in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. In a three-week period of conflict in Iraq during 2003 it was estimated over 1700 tons of depleted uranium munitions were used. That is why the depleted uranium use in ammunitions has been banned worldwide by International Court of Justice.
In the October edition of Physics World, the details about Yucca Mountain as an abandoned military site were discussed and we can see from the following excerpt how this particular area could be typically used for isotopic analysis:
Lying a few kilometers away from Yucca Mountain is the Nevada Test Site area, where the US military conducted some 904 atomic bomb tests between 1945 and 1992. And for the last 30 years the mountain has been the prime choice for a US national repository to store radioactive waste from the country’s 104 nuclear reactors.
In an IAEA report, four locations in Iraq following the beginning of the War on Terror in 2003 were analyzed. Especially in wartime, when the nuclear fallout is the greatest and the threat most dire, isotopic techniques are invaluable in estimating the damage caused in the past and the potential for more damage in the future.