Nuclear Forensics Bill Moves Through Congress

Legislation to bolster the nation’s nuclear forensics capability recently passed in the House, enacting many recommendations in a report by the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The need for this [legislation] has gone up since the end of the Cold War,” said Rep. Bill Foster, (IL-14th), explaining that the appearance of nuclear materials on the black market is a growing global concern.

Nuclear forensics is the technical analysis of materials to determine their nature and origin.  The scientific process is used on nuclear materials that have been intercepted or following an explosion to deter or respond to nuclear terrorism.  

Michael May, professor emeritus at Stanford University’s School of Engineering and a senior fellow with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, chaired the panel that wrote the report, which was released in February. The study group concluded that the U.S. is in danger of losing some of the expertise needed to rapidly identify nuclear materials smuggled on the black market or used in a detonation.

After the report was released, Foster, a former Fermilab physicist, introduced a bill (H.R. 5929) that included some of the study’s recommendations. The legislation was rewritten as an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2009 Defense Authorization Bill, which the House passed on May 23.

The legislation:  

• Supports the research and development of nuclear forensics capability;

• Creates a fellowship for Ph.D. candidates in nuclear chemistry;  

• Calls for the creation of an international database of nuclear materials;

• Establishes an independent Nuclear Forensics Advisory Panel; and

• Requires the President to report to Congress on cabinet-level participation in nuclear terrorism preparedness exercises that include nuclear forensics analysis.

An international database to track the source of nuclear materials could play a critical role in deterring a terrorist attack, said Foster.

“If they know that we can trace it back to them, that’s one of the few very strong deterrents that we have,” he said.

Foster’s amendment to move the bill along the legislative process was easily agreed to in the House.

“We proposed it at a propitious time,” he said.  

Reps. Ellen Tauscher (CA-10th) and Adam Smith, (WA-9th), provided Foster with assistance on the issue.

“Foster’s ability to understand the science behind the legislation also played a key role in its success, said Francis Slakey,” senior adviser to the study group and associate director of public affairs for APS.

“Rep. Foster comprehends that the solutions to issues confronting our nation often involve tapping our scientific expertise,” said Slakey.

Nuclear forensics was first developed during the Cold War, but since then, the nation’s capability has declined as scientists have neared retirement. According to the report, between 35 to 50 scientists are working on nuclear forensics in national laboratories, and many of them are ready to leave the field.

Benn Tannenbaum, associate program director of the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy at AAAS, said, “While the number of scientists and engineers working in the field has gone down, the response to the report will hopefully lead to an increase in the size and scope of an appropriately skilled workforce.”  

Foster echoed Tannenbaum’s comments.

“A very important part of this is to encourage a next generation of nuclear forensics experts,” he said. 

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