New Report Recommends Improvments to U.S. Nuclear Forensics Program

Jul 30, 2010


By Sarah Bulley
A report released from the National Research Council (NRC) about U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities makes several recommendations for improving domestic forensics programs. The initial classified NRC report was published in January. The unclassified version, released yesterday, lists several areas of concern, including program organization, sustainability, infrastructure, and procedures. As part of the report’s executive summary, several recommendations were offered for DHS, national laboratories, and the nuclear forensics community to sustain and improve their procedures. It stated
The United States has developed a nuclear forensics capability that has been demonstrated in real-world incidents of interdicted materials and in exercises of actions required after a nuclear detonation. The committee, however, has concerns about the program and finds that without strong leadership, careful planning, and additional funds, these capabilities will decline.
Nuclear forensics techniques are used to analyze a radiological or nuclear attack using investigative tools onsite and in laboratories, including modeling, analysis, and comparison with databases containing information on known materials or previous analysis. The Department of Homeland Security is the primary agency currently handling forensics among a group of other federal agencies and national laboratories. The FBI handles the law enforcement tasks associated with tracking perpetrators of nuclear attacks or suppliers of illicit nuclear material.
The NRC report finds that organization of the nuclear forensics program could be improved to better address national security needs. In fact,
There is extensive and effective information sharing among several of the parties that constitute the NTNFC.
However, DHS does not direct resources or actions in program elements outside of the pre-detonation nuclear materials mission area, and agencies are more likely to optimize within their mission areas than across the mission areas.
The NRC committee also believes that the current response timeline is too long.
Although U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities are substantial and can be improved, right now they are fragile, under resourced, and, in some respects, deteriorating. Without strong leadership, careful planning, and additional resources, these capabilities will decline.
More investments in resources and personnel are necessary to build up and, at the very least, maintain our capabilities to identify nuclear materials that are seized or used in an attack. Improved tools that are mobile will improve the U.S. ability to deploy to a remote site promptly and return analysis to labs in a timely manner.
According to a 2008 joint report from the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science
A program should be undertaken to develop and manufacture advanced, automated, field-deployable equipment that would allow the necessary measurements to be made rapidly and accurately at a number of sites.
Additionally, such equipment will resolve some of the other challenges the nuclear forensics field currently face
Field-deployable instruments capable of automated radiochemical and mass spectrometric analysis for the isotopes of interest are a good example of what is needed. These capabilities would significantly shorten the timeline to provide critical analytical information with high confidence decision makers.
Even if new and improved equipment were to reduce “shorten the timeline,” nuclear forensics is inherently constrained by other factors, such as nature and the
iterative nature of interpreting nuclear data, where initial results are fed into computer codes before being subject to further analysis.
The ageing workforce in nuclear forensics and lack of young doctoral candidates entering the field is another area of concern. Currently, personnel in national laboratories “are too few and are spread too thinly.” The NRC report recommends strengthening relationships with universities to address this problem. The 2008 APS/AASA report also recognized this challenge and recommended funding research grants at universities and pulling additional personnel from related scientific fields.
With respect to sustainability, the nuclear forensics program suffers a lack of financial resources. Nuclear forensics relies on support from U.S. weapons maintenance for funding, and the report states that those funds “have been declining.” However, the Obama Administration has pledged additional funds to nuclear weapons maintenance and modernization. It remains unclear how much of the final weapons complex allocation will go towards the forensics program, but an increased budget overall may help allay some of the report’s concerns.
The National Research Council nuclear forensics report was commissioned by the DHS. Dr. Albert Carnesale, who led the NRC study, wrote in the unclassified preface that since the release of January’s classified report, the federal government had “appeared to make progress.” Although much work remains, according to Dr. Carnesale, the report identifies specific areas where nuclear forensics can be improved and lays out recommendations for resolving current issues. Nuclear forensics is key to the early detection of nuclear and radiological terrorist threats. It is necessary to understand and improve upon its limitations now to be fully prepared for any future nuclear threats.