Tracing Unidentified Nuclear Materials APS, AAAS Study Urges New Steps

cover of February 2008 Forensics Report Cover by AAAS Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, Program Needs by Joint Working Group of APS and AAAS.  Download report. Format - PDF
The United States is in danger of losing some of the expertise needed to rapidly and accurately identify nuclear materials smuggled on the black market or used in a nuclear detonation, according to a newly released report by the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Nuclear forensics–the use of sophisticated technologies to analyze the nature, use and origin of nuclear materials–was developed during the Cold War and is just as important now with concerns about potential terrorist use of nuclear materials in a bomb or radiological device. There are about 35 to 50 scientists working in nuclear forensics at the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories, with up to half of them expected to retire in 10 to 15 years. The pipeline for replacing those specialists is almost empty, and university programs in radiochemistry have been dwindling.

Michael May, head of the panel that wrote the report, outlined its conclusions Feb. 16 during a news briefing and a symposium at the Annual Meeting of the AAAS in Boston. May is professor emeritus at Stanford University’s School of Engineering and a senior fellow with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford.

The report urges steps to help replenish the pool of trained personnel and upgrade their laboratory and field equipment. It also calls for broader international cooperation on a database with the physical signatures of nuclear materials that could lead to faster capture of terrorists. Key recommendations from the report:

R&D to Develop Advanced Lab and Field Equipment and Numerical Modeling

Forensics technologies need to be developed to allow for more rapid field measurements and accurate laboratory analysis. Also, improvements in numerical simulations that can provide weapon design information are needed.

Workforce Development

There are about 35 to 50 personnel working on nuclear forensics at the national labs, not enough to deal with an emergency, and many are reaching retirement age. A program to develop trained personnel should be undertaken that could include: funding research at universities, graduate scholarships and fellowships, internships at the labs and incentives that stimulate industrial support of faculty positions.

International Cooperation and Sample-Matching Database Development

The speed and accuracy of nuclear forensics would be significantly enhanced through a comprehensive global sample-matching database.


The existing counter-terrorism exercise programs must test the actions, coordination, communications and policies that would be needed at all levels in the event of a nuclear detonation anywhere in the world. Exercises should be structured to illustrate the strengths and limitations of nuclear forensics, as well as to test capability and coordination in light of both the time urgent needs of the situation and also the ability to communicate to the public and manage expectations.

Review and Evaluation Groups

The U.S. government should establish two panels of independent experts: one to systematically review, evaluate and keep records on the exercises recommended above; the other to advise the government in real time of the results of nuclear forensics and what they mean in the event of an emergency. 

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

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