•   Detection and age-assessment of uranium and plutonium in environmental matrices.

•   Cooperation through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the International Technical Working Group Round Robins.

An Emerging and Still Inexact Science

Ian Hutcheon gave an overview of nuclear forensic analysis as it is practiced in the United States and some examples of different types of applications, particularly with regard to the international arena and what is sometimes called nonproliferation nuclear forensics.

Nuclear forensics is the technical means by which nuclear materials are characterized. It is an emerging science because even though nuclear forensic analysis was first applied in the United States in 1949 to diagnose the first Russian nuclear explosion, nuclear forensic analysis as we apply it today really began only in the mid 1990’s, and in an international context it has really been applied only within the past 10 years. It is an imperfect science because even though analysts can use sophisticated analytical equipment to characterize material such as interdicted highly enriched uranium (HEU), they often lack the knowledge to identify fingerprints that will allow for the identification of perpetrators and put them in jail.

Weapons-useable material today is found in at least 40 different countries. Because the threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism rise above all others, methods are needed to prevent illicit trafficking of this material throughout these 40 different countries. International safeguards and nuclear forensics must work together to make sure that these materials remain under lawful control and in the event that illicit trafficking does occur, the perpetrators are rapidly identified. Meeting the threat of nuclear nonproliferation is a critical 21st century issue that no single country can hope to solve independently; it requires global cooperation.

Figure 6-1 is a timeline of seizures of weapon-useable material going back to 1992. It differs from the IAEA illicit trafficking database in that it contains only HEU and plutonium. There were a large number of events in the early 1990’s associated with the fall of the Soviet Union. What is particularly troubling is that nuclear material continues to be smuggled: interdictions occurred in 2001, 2003, 2006, 2010, and even in 2012. Altogether, this interdicted material amounts to about 15 kilograms of HEU and about 400 grams of plutonium. In itself, this is not enough to make a weapon, but these are only the cases of successful interdiction. If the drug trade is indicative of our success rate for interdiction, this could be as little as 10 percent of the total amount of material being trafficked.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement