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.

Jacqueline McBride/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Julie Gostic at Lawrence Livermore National Lab works with a flow-through chemical automation system. The US government is training a new wave of nuclear scientists to help it stay up to date on nuclear forensics.

The US's ability to track down illicit nuclear material or conduct a timely investigation of a terrorist attack involving nuclear materials is at risk of serious erosion, according to a panel of experts gathered by the National Research Council.

"Without strong leadership, careful planning, and additional funds, these capabilities will decline," the panel concluded in a study released July 29 in Washington.

The 31-page report is an unclassified version of a classified sibling, pulled together at the request of the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the US Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration and presented to the agencies in January.

Some progress has been made in addressing the issues raised in the classified report, says Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles and a specialist on nuclear and international security issues, in a preface to the unclassified version.

He notes that President Obama has developed a five-year strategic plan to deal with the challenges faced by the country's nuclear CSIs. In addition, earlier this year he signed into law the Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act, which attempts to deal with a looming shortage in experts in the field, among its other provisions.

Still, "much work remains to be done," Dr. Carnesale writes in the preface to the unclassified report.

Ideally, nuclear sleuths try intercept illicit nuclear material before anyone can turn it into a weapon or terrorist device.

A great deal of effort goes into accounting for nuclear materials not only from government weapons programs, but those used in the private sector for everything from medical imaging to irradiating food as a preservative.

If that material goes AWOL, then shows up in a box in the trunk of someone's car, it's up to nuclear-forensic experts to analyze samples to determine where it came from.

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.

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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