Cover Image

Not for Sale

View/Hide Left Panel

ability to access that information in case of an incident, and to create entities with which the United States can communicate on these matters in case of an incident.

Recommendation 8: As the U.S. government organizes and enhances its databases and nuclear forensics methods, the Executive Office of the President and the Department of State, working with the community of nuclear forensics experts, should develop policies on classes of data and methods to be shared internationally and explore mechanisms to accomplish that sharing.

The United States should decide whether to share analytical methods to foster development of a broader international scientific base for conducting nuclear forensics. The United States should also conclude whether it would be useful to share its own analytical results to build international support for action following an event. These decisions should be made as soon as is practical, before the capabilities are needed to respond to an event.


For a decade, the U.S. government has considered a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States to be the most catastrophic threat the nation faces. Nuclear forensics is an important part of our response to that threat and important to our national security. It is not intended to provide all of the answers that decision makers desire, but to appreciate its value, one need only imagine the circumstances if the nation did not have a nuclear forensics capability in place when an interdiction or a detonation event occurred.

An impromptu nuclear forensics effort would be initiated. Such an effort would likely provide inferior and possibly misleading results on a longer timeline and with lower confidence levels. Key information might never be discovered. The intelligence and law enforcement communities would be asked to carry out their investigations without timely, reliable information about the nuclear materials or device design. Analysts would have no benchmarks by which to judge the quality of the information upon which decisions and actions are taken. This would make it more difficult to identify the perpetrators, especially their supporters or sponsors, and to inform the president of which countries may have been involved and which ones likely were not involved. Furthermore, even if intelligence and law enforcement were to successfully identify culprits associated with smuggling or detonating a weapon or material, they would have to provide supporting evidence for their conclusions, not just in a prosecutorial context but even in a national security context, domestically and internationally. Allies and adversaries alike must be persuaded, and that task would be made easier with physical forensic evidence provided by a robust program.

Important as nuclear forensics capabilities are, they are at risk and actions are needed now to sustain and improve them.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement