Nuclear forensics

Many important international treaties, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) provide for special mechanisms allowing to verify that treaty’s members adhere to their commitments. Such verification mechanisms require the application of appropriate technologies.  As technology advances, it provides better means for verification arrangements to pursue their goals. At the same time, the goals or working conditions of verification mechanisms may change with time, creating a demand for new technologies and even new scientific disciplines. 

Nuclear forensic analysis (or nuclear forensics) is an example of such a new discipline. Certain nuclear forensic techniques have been used for many years in isolated applications, including:

  • IAEA safeguards system verifying compliance with the treaty’s prohibitions on the manufacture of a nuclear weapon by a non-nuclear weapon state;

  • Enforcement of controls on the transfer of nuclear material and prevention or prosecution of the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials;

  • Verification of the bilateral treaties between the Soviet Union and the United States concerning the limitation of nuclear weapons testing;

  • Compliance verification mechanism currently being worked on by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO);

  • Proposals for verification system of the yet-to-be-negotiated Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT).

The maturity and popularity of the technologies involved have recently increased to the point where nuclear forensics should be treated as a separate scientific discipline. According to the SIPRI definition, nuclear forensic analysis (nuclear forensics) is the analysis of a sample of nuclear or radioactive material and any associated information to provide evidence for determining the history of the sample material.

For more information on processes of the nuclear forensic analysis and specific cases of its application see: the Yearbook 2008, Appendix 8D.

SIPRI is currently continuing to study various applications of the nuclear forensic analysis.