THE MAGAZINE

Sustaining Nuclear Forensics

By Joseph Straw

 
More recently, President Barack Obama signed legislation into law charging NTNFC with overseeing implementation of the multi-agency five-year plan. The law further established the National Nuclear Forensics Expertise Development Program under which DHS must recruit new nuclear forensic scientists and fund scholarships for undergraduate study, doctoral fellowships, internships at the national labs, and research awards for faculty researchers.
 
Scholarship recipients will in turn be obligated to work for two years after graduation in a forensics post, either at a national lab or federal agency. DHS expects to see the program generate three to four Ph.Ds annually.
 
The APS/AAAS report also notes that even with an adequate number of specialists, forensic analysis can take weeks or months. Nuclear forensics would benefit from establishment of an international database of the world’s nuclear materials containing data about their characteristics, accompanied by samples. Separate, limited collections are kept by the United States, Russia, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Commission’s Institute for Transuranium Elements in Germany.
 
Samples and data from rogue states like Iran and North Korea, however, are hard to come by and hard to trust. International inspectors testing a plutonium sample secured from North Korea discovered the country had mixed two separate types to “spoof” foreign databases. While forensic scientists detected the ruse, future attempts “may or may not mislead analysts,” according to the APS/AAAS report.
 
Improving portable, rugged, and analytic technology can relieve some of the demand for human expertise. For example, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has developed technology that can test the chemical components in nuclear material without separating them. And its Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has introduced automation into analytic processes, while accelerating them, according to the GAO. But technology can by no means replace the need for human expertise entirely, practitioners caution.

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