US 'nuclear sleuthing' abilities need improvement: report
In the event of a nuclear attack, US nuclear scientists would have a hard time tracking down the source and characteristics of the nuclear material, a panel of experts found.
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Virtually everyone agrees that an attack on US soil involving either a small nuclear weapon, a dirty bomb (which uses chemical explosives to spread radioactive material), or other forms of irradiated material is the most grave terrorist threat the country faces.Skip to next paragraph
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Thus, the pressure to quickly deliver reliable information on the nature of the material used and its most likely source to the president and to Congress would be enormous.
Yet in drills, the time from "event" to finished analysis would leave the policymakers responsible for responding to the incident drumming their fingers with frustration, the panel suggests – even though the agencies involved typically receive advance notice of the exercise and the materials involved.
If the event were real, the panel says, investigators would be hard-pressed to produce results within the time given for the drills.
Several factors contribute to this, according to the report:
- Multiple agencies are involved, leading to challenges in setting standards and coordinating efforts.
- Historically, money and people for nuclear forensics have come from the US nuclear weapons program, whose budgets are shrinking.
- Scientists and engineers with the skills needed are either retiring, or if they are still working, are too few and spread too thin to respond as quickly as an incident would demand.
- R&D has been lacking that would allow nuclear sleuths to develop new tools or update existing tools they need, while meeting modern occupational health and safety standards.
To meet these challenges, the panel offers a range of recommendations. Among them: conduct more-realistic, unannounced drills to get a better sense of where gaps in responses are; ensure investigators have access to all relevant databases, even if they are classified or proprietary; boost R&D to give nuclear investigators the tools to allow them to produce scientifically credible results in less time; and look for ways to improve sharing information internationally.
US Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, who sponsored the Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act, calls the panel's to-do list "sound recommendations" for improving the country's nuclear-forensic efforts.
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