The United States maintains and seeks to improve programs to determine the origin and history of nuclear material and devices, and in the case of a nuclear explosion, the design of the device. The acquisition of the data and the performance of the analyses to support this mission are called nuclear forensics (see Box 1-1). The results are an important element of attribution—determining who is responsible—and may help to determine the history of the material or device and identify characteristics that would aid the search for additional material and/or devices.
Section 3132 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of Fiscal Year 2019 directs the Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security, to commission a study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) to evaluate and make recommendations for improving U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities (see Box 1-2 for the full statement of task). The request came at a time when the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) within the Department
of Defense (DoD) was already in the process of requesting a study from the National Academies on this topic and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within the Department of Energy was considering joining that request. This interest came approximately 10 years after the initiation of an earlier study of the same topic (NAS, 2010).1 In 2018, DTRA and NNSA felt that progress had been made since 2010, and both Congress and the agencies decided it was time to have an independent reexamination of the program.
The United States today faces many different kinds of low-probability, high-consequence threats, including those arising from nature (e.g., impacts from asteroids or comets, supervolcano eruptions, high-magnitude earthquakes, pandemics), from accidents involving engineered systems (e.g., dam failures, satellite collisions, nuclear power plant accidents), and from malevolent human actors (e.g., use of a weapon of mass destruction). Policy and decision makers face difficult choices in weighing efforts to counter these infrequent and uncertain threats versus more familiar threats like seasonal flu, car crashes, or even mass shootings. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, low-probability or infrequent high-consequence events do happen (in the case of
1 Most of the advisory functions of the institution now operate under the name the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies).
COVID-19, causing more than 550,000 U.S. deaths from February 2020 through April 2021 and enormous psychological, social, and economic harm). These risks cannot be fully eliminated, so decision makers seek to manage them, which is to say that they try to reduce the likelihood and mitigate potential consequences. Part of risk management is evaluating the actions that can be taken and the value that those actions provide (NSPM-35, 2021).
Assessing the value and cost effectiveness of U.S. nuclear forensics operations and technical analyses is difficult. With natural and engineered systems, event probabilities can sometimes be quantified to inform decisions about which prevention and mitigation measures are worth pursuing. In cases involving malevolent human actors, it is not possible to assign reliable probabilities to all possible attack scenarios. Some analysts have estimated the value of programs to prevent nuclear terrorism by estimating the cost of the consequences, response, and recovery from the detonation of a nuclear weapon or radiological dispersion device in a city, but the possibility that a nuclear device or devices will be detonated in the United States or an allied country is difficult to quantify. Because some people impute accuracy to a prediction that is characterized by numbers, attempts to quantify risks can create a false impression that risks are known accurately, which can lead to counter-productive behaviors or even a false sense of security.
There are other parallels to the monitoring, detection, and verification challenges of nuclear explosive materials and devices (NASEM, 2021). Reducing the likelihood of plausible attacks is accomplished via International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and other material control, accounting, and regulatory programs; security systems around nuclear weapons and nuclear materials; portal monitors and other radiation detection technologies and practices; and deterrence.
Nuclear forensics programs are a critical component of deterrence against trafficking nuclear materials and unclaimed nuclear attacks.2 A declared and credible nuclear forensics capability helps ensure that the perpetrators of any unclaimed attack or attempt will be discovered and subject to reprisal. The U.S. government’s attribution ability, combined with the global reach and power of the U.S. military, helps deter attacks. Nuclear forensics may also help uncover planned attacks (including subsequent attacks) before they occur, and possibly enable law enforcement or other capabilities to prevent such attacks.
Nuclear forensics may help to reduce the consequences of an attack by informing post-attack emergency response and management. Nuclear forensics might also prevent erroneous attribution of material or an attack, which could otherwise lead to actions up to and including war against the wrong party.
The deterrence provided by a robust nuclear forensics program is not readily quantified because it is impossible to know exactly what actions or events were deterred. Nevertheless, the committee agrees with policy makers that a capable nuclear forensics program contributes to deterrence and risk reduction by its visible existence.
The committee conducted a broad examination of technical nuclear forensics capabilities within and available to the U.S. government. These capabilities exist primarily at the U.S. national security laboratories but also within the DoD, the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of
2 The 2019 Nuclear Defense Research and Development Roadmap states: “technical nuclear forensics capabilities and timely, high-confidence attribution contribute to deterring adversaries from contemplating covert nuclear attacks or enabling would-be nuclear terrorists or other non-state actors.” (NDRD, 2019, p. 14).
Investigation, the intelligence community, academia, and private industry. The committee visited relevant national laboratories, military bases, and government assets, toured their laboratories, and met with their technical staff and leaders. Committee members observed several exercises relevant to the statement of task, and interviewed and were briefed by federal leaders and managers, both current and retired, who direct or have directed aspects of nuclear forensics operations and technical analysis.
Pursuant to the statement of task, the committee focused its efforts on the technical aspects of nuclear forensics that support attribution. The committee did not examine or make recommendations for improving law enforcement investigatory capabilities or all-source intelligence collection and evaluation capabilities, elements of attribution that may be of equal or greater importance to determining who is responsible if nuclear material or a device were interdicted or a weapon detonated. The second item in the statement of task directs the committee to provide recommendations on how to improve, among other activities, technical analysis and attribution support. The committee understood this to mean how and which technical processes and analyses might support and improve attribution.
As is described in the Preface, the NTNF program was in the process of a reorganization during this study. The major change was the shift from the priorities of the Obama administration to those of the Trump administration. The Obama administration prioritized reducing the risk of non-state nuclear terrorism, and therefore expanded NTNF capabilities and led the global effort to secure, within four years, all nuclear materials, both foreign and domestic, that could be used by terrorists. The Trump administration shifted the government’s national security focus to peer and near-peer competition and major power conflicts of all kinds (economic, cyber, military, etc.).3 This change has caused a marked reduction in the priority afforded to nuclear forensics across multiple departments and agencies. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reorganized its chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear missions into a new office: Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD). Despite the fact that both an executive order and a statute designated DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO, which was integrated into CWMD in the DHS reorganization) as the host of the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center (NTNFC) and as the lead interagency coordinator,4 DHS leadership effectively abdicated DNDO's NTNFC responsibilities by prioritizing other missions. Staff of the NTNFC, some of whom were detailees from other agencies, returned to their home agencies, and DHS reassigned other employees. It was largely left up to the Nuclear Forensics Executive Council (NFEC), an interagency entity comprising assistant secretary level personnel, to devise a reorganization plan that was not worked out until 2020.
As understood by the committee as of the writing of this report, the NTNF reorganization plan that has since emerged assigns NNSA the lead coordinating role. This transition requires changes to three separate components:
3 The distinction between nuclear terrorism by non-state actors and peer competition and major power conflicts is not always clear as non-state actors of concern can be—and have been—sponsored by nation states.
4 Public Law 111-140 (2010) “establish[ed], within the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center to provide centralized stewardship, planning, assessment, gap analysis, exercises, improvement, and integration for all Federal nuclear forensics and attributions activities.”
- Legislation. Changes to Public Law 111-140 to transfer DHS’s NTNFC coordination role to NNSA were not made in the fiscal year (FY) 2021 NDAA; the administration plans to ask Congress again to make the change in the FY 2022 NDAA.
- Presidential policy. A new National Security Presidential Memorandum, NSPM-35 (NSPM-35, 2021), updating the federal NTNF roles and responsibilities was signed on January 19, 2021, replacing the guidance from Presidential Policy Directive-42 (PPD-42) Annex C.5
- NNSA intra-agency transition. NNSA told the committee that it plans to consolidate its nuclear forensics activities (research and development [R&D] and operations) into one office; the FY 2021 and FY 2022 budget proposals include substantially increased funding for the NTNF mission at NNSA.
The reorganization may be beneficial in the long term, but even if it is implemented at the planned pace, in close coordination between DHS and NNSA, there has been a period when DHS was not fully carrying out its role as steward and coordinator for the nuclear forensics mission and NNSA has not yet been legally assigned the mission along with the resources necessary to execute these responsibilities fully. The committee notes that these actions are not the fault of the DHS program staff and management of the NTNFC; the decisions were made at higher levels (CWMD, 2018).6
Also in 2018, DTRA, which had previously managed DoD nuclear forensics R&D programs, shifted focus away from nuclear forensics to better align with the Trump administration’s priorities, outlined in the National Defense Strategy (NDS) (OSD, 2018a) and the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) (OSD, 2018b), to counter “great powers” (near-peer state competitors like Russia and China). The NDS and NPR emphasized support for the combatant commands, leading DTRA to shift focus to supporting the nuclear warfighter. This decision included ending support for many of the nuclear forensics R&D programs that DTRA funded at the national laboratories. It is unclear whether these programs will be continued without DTRA funding.
As a consequence, the committee’s assessment of the national nuclear forensics organization and capabilities is handicapped by the fact that it observed a program undergoing significant change in structure and budget. While some of this restructuring was completed during the study data-gathering period, there were limited opportunities to observe the proposed restructured program’s performance.
Even with the program undergoing significant change, it was clear that many employees across the federal government remain committed to the nuclear forensics mission. Departments, agencies, and offices actively involved in nuclear forensics have been very cooperative and helpful to this study, providing briefings, documents, and access to experts. Any difficulty the committee experienced examining nuclear forensics operations and technical analysis capabilities was primarily a result of the broader ongoing reorganization and not the fault of dedicated federal and laboratory employees working under difficult circumstances.
6 CWMD’s Congressional Justification for FY 2019 offers the following justification for decreases in the Advanced Research Initiative and Exploratory Research programs: “efforts were not directly linked to an end user and shifting research from these programs will allow resources to be reallocated for efforts to immediately improve capabilities for operational users” (CWMD, 2018).
The next chapter presents the committee’s explanation of the importance of the NTNF mission, assessment of U.S. NTNF capabilities, recommendations to improve NTNF, and its vision for NTNF’s future. This document is the public summary of the committee’s restricted report (see Box 1-2). The committee’s findings and recommendations in this summary report are identical to those in the restricted report except where specificity was removed to allow for the information to be released publicly.