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Using nuclear forensics to increase international nuclear security cooperation

Nuclear forensic analysis (nuclear forensics) has gained prominence as a tool to detect, prevent and deter acts of nuclear terrorism and illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. Next week's Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul will seek to improve international cooperation on nuclear security issues. However, the potential applications of nuclear forensics go beyond nuclear security and demonstrate that cooperation can be achieved in and between a number of international security frameworks.

The 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit will attempt to address the possibility that, one day, a known or as yet unknown non-state actor will engage in illicit trafficking of nuclear materials for the purposes of creating and detonating a nuclear weapon or ‘dirty bomb’—with disastrous consequences.

The summit will seek international cooperation on nuclear security issues, and it is in this context that nuclear forensics has gained prominence. For example, in the past decade nuclear forensics was crucial in the investigation of a number of cases of illicit trafficking of highly enriched uranium (HEU), most prominently in Georgia and Moldova.


However, the tools of nuclear forensics can be useful in a variety of other contexts as well. Recognition of the synergies between the various applications of nuclear forensics is valuable at a time when states need to use existing capabilities in order to fulfil the commitments made by them at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC.


The origins of nuclear forensics

 It can be argued that nuclear forensic methods are far older than the problem of illicit trafficking. Unlike the atomic bomb—which, according to historian Thomas Powers, ‘was given a name thirty years before the first research dollar was spent to build one’—the science of nuclear forensics came into existence long before it received its current name.

During World War II, for example, the Allied powers went to great lengths to detect radiation in atmospheric gases and river water in order to investigate the extent of German military nuclear development. In the autumn of 1944 US aircraft made a number of flights over locations that were considered potentially related to the German nuclear program, sampling the air in search of the radioactive isotope xenon-133.

This isotope, if detected there and at that time, would have provided a strong indication that Germany was operating at least one reactor producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. The absence of this isotope served as evidence to the contrary in what can be seen as an early example of nuclear forensic investigation.

The techniques devised then—including unusual methods to collect and analyse certain wine vintages and compare traces of radioactive materials—paved the way for today’s science of nuclear forensics. However, by the 1990s the term was being used specifically in the context of investigations of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials.


The process of nuclear forensics

 Nuclear forensics, in the widest meaning of the term, is essentially the extraction of useful information from any nuclear or radioactive material for the purposes of national or international security.

The nuclear forensic process involves four steps: the collection of a sample of material; characterization of that material, which leads to production of data describing it; interpretation of this data, translating it into information; and reconstruction of the history of the material in question, which involves an investigator taking into account everything else that is known about the case.

These four steps enable investigators to associate the material with a specific event or activity. During this process, a characteristic—or, most likely, a combination of characteristics—is identified that enables an investigator to differentiate a particular sample of material from other materials. This characteristic is called a ‘signature’.

Nuclear forensics is not like comparing fingerprints or DNA, both of which procedures are expected to return nearly certain results. It does not necessarily provide a reliable match or certainty. Rather, it can demonstrate consistency with one hypothesis or enable the rejection of another.


Illicit trafficking: three cases in Georgia

 This four-step process can be used as a tool in a variety of applications, the most obvious and well known of which is combating illicit trafficking. The arrest of a smuggler in possession of HEU in Georgia in 2003, a similar incident in 2006 and a third HEU seizure in 2010 illustrated the extent to which nuclear forensics can be used as an investigative tool.

The three cases in Georgia also demonstrated the importance of nuclear forensics in combating nuclear terrorism. All three of the HEU samples seized had been enriched to various concentrations approaching 90 per cent, clearly making them weapon-usable materials. As a result, Georgia suddenly found itself under the magnifying glass of security analysts and nuclear security experts alike.

The investigation of the three incidents has since led to the creation of a special investigative unit, the installation of radiation detection monitors on Georgia’s borders and improvements in Georgia’s forensics capabilities—all of which will arguably improve Georgia’s ability to help prevent future acts of nuclear terrorism.


Other applications

 However, there are other, equally important uses for nuclear forensics. Nuclear forensic techniques and methods are in fact already applied in diverse areas including environmental sampling for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards; the radionuclide component of the International Monitoring System of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO); verification of nuclear arms control treaties; and national technical means for monitoring foreign nuclear explosions.

Within the framework of IAEA safeguards, for instance, nuclear forensics methods can be used to infer the age of a sample and the production process that was used to create the nuclear material. The consistency of this information with a given country’s declaration under its agreements with the IAEA can then be judged.

Nuclear forensics can also be used to ascertain whether debris is a result of a nuclear explosion, even an underground one, which is particularly useful when monitoring compliance with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Similarly, within the context of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), forensics can help determine the potential nuclear explosive origins of particles and gases in air.


The scope of international cooperation

 Since nuclear forensic methods are being employed in a range of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and arms control applications, relevant equipment and methods, as well as people trained in their use, already exist in various countries. Identifying facilities and competencies set up previously for other purposes and creating legal and organizational mechanisms for their efficient use in case of an investigation can help states fulfil commitments made at the Nuclear Security Summits.

Additionally, further international cooperation is possible at various individual stages of the nuclear forensics process. At present, such cooperation does occur, but only sporadically. The potential exists for much more widespread and effective cooperation not only between countries, but also between international frameworks such as the NPT and the CTBT.

Thus, it will become increasingly important that policymakers and governments understand the ‘big picture’ of nuclear forensics and possible synergies between its different applications. A forthcoming SIPRI publication, entitled Nuclear Material Analysis for Forensic and Other Security Purposes, will hopefully provide a useful and timely resource and motivate even greater levels of international cooperation.


Vitaly Fedchenko is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.