Fingerprinting environmental releases from nuclear facilities


Identifying the source of nuclear materials in the environment rapidly and with minimal sample processing is a key objective in the field of nuclear forensics. Characterisation of these materials is essential in the responsive management and risk assessment of both authorised and accidental discharges of radioactive materials to the environment. Rapid techniques for the identification and characterisation of hot particles in environmental matrices is of fundamental importance to this objective. Laser ablation techniques offer significant potential for the analysis of elemental distribution at the micron scale. However, they are limited to being semi-quantitative due to matrix-related variability in ablation efficiencies. This project focuses on developing laser ablation mass spectrometry techniques (LA-ICPMS, TOF-ICPMS) for the rapid characterization of particles released from nuclear facilities, and from uranium mining and processing facilities. The project focuses on developing effective approaches to correct for variable ablation efficiency across diverse matrices. Working closely with UK and European partners, and with access to comprehensive archive of materials, the project will develop new methods for the rapid elemental and isotopic analysis of fuel and fuel cladding debris (and other “hot” particles), high temperature glasses and composites, and U-rich particulates and demonstrate their application in a nuclear forensics context


This project will evaluate fundamental parameters that determine laser ablation efficiency and use these data to develop matrix-specific ablation calibration procedures These procedures will then be applied to the analysis of a range of particulate materials representing different forms of nuclear / radioactive waste discharged into the environmental during routine operations or under accident conditions. Linking closely to ongoing work with the National Physical Laboratory and European Union partners in the EU Horizon SURRI project, the successful candidate will access archive and newly-collected samples of (or representing) nuclear fuel and fuel cladding debris (and other “hot” particles), high temperature glasses and composites, and U-rich particulates. From this sample suite, they will develop rapid, robust and quantitative laser ablation methods coupled with ICPMS or TOF-ICPMS for elemental and isotopic characterization and demonstrate how these techniques can be applied to nuclear forensics applications.   

Analyses will be carried out using extensive analytical facilities available in GAU-Radioanalytical, the isotope geochemistry laboratories, and the wider School of Ocean and Earth Science, at the University of Southampton’s Waterfront campus at the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton).



The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at the School of Ocean and Earth Science at the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton). Specific training will include: (i) use of laser ablation and ICPMS techniques for elemental and isotopic characterization of materials; (ii) radiochemical analysis, in specialist facilities in the School of Ocean and Earth Science; (iii) and sampling and manipulation of radioactive materials.

Beyond the exchanges associated with INSPIRE we anticipate that the student will interact closely with partners at the National Physical Laboratory, and field sampling and workshop activities (including summer schools) associated with the EU Horizon 2020 SURRI project

Eligibility & Funding Details: 

Please see for details.


Background Reading: 
  1. Croudace I.W., Warwick P.E., Reading D.G. & Russell B.C. (2016). Recent contributions to the rapid screening of radionuclides in emergency responses and nuclear forensics. Trends Anal. Chem., 85, 120 – 129.


  1. Reading D.G., Croudace I.W., Warwick P.E. & Cigliana K.A. (2016). Applying multivariate statistics to discriminate uranium ore concentrate geolocations using (radio)chemical data in support of nuclear forensics investigations. J. Env. Rad., 162 – 163, 1 – 10.