The independent resource on global security

Appendix 8D. Nuclear forensic analysis


I. Introduction

II. The definitions, processes and technologies of nuclear forensics

III. Examples of applications of nuclear forensic analysis

IV. Conclusions


Read the full appendix [PDF].


Many international treaties and national laws require mechanisms to verify compliance. Many such mechanisms rely on technology, and so encourage the development of better technical means for verification. Nuclear forensic analysis (nuclear forensics) is a newly emerging scientific discipline with direct applications in treaty verification and law enforcement. It is defined as ‘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’.


Individual nuclear forensic techniques were first developed during World War II when the USA collected samples of air and water in the vicinity of alleged German reactors in order to verify if plutonium production was taking place. They were routinely used in the context of Russian–US bilateral arms control treaties verification. With the emergence of the phenomenon of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials in the early 1990s, nuclear forensics began to be applied to investigating many individual cases. Technological advances provided an opportunity for nuclear forensics to be successfully used in verifying a country’s compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards. For instance, the collection of environmental (‘swipe’) samples at the nuclear fuel reprocessing line in Yongbyon, North Korea, in 1992 demonstrated that North Korea failed to declare all plutonium separation activities. Analysis of similar samples collected in Iran in 2003 provided strong evidence of undeclared uranium enrichment activities and helped to uncover the clandestine nuclear trade network led by Abdul Qadeer Khan.


The development of the verification mechanism for the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty has demonstrated that nuclear forensic techniques can play a crucial role in confirming the nuclear nature of an explosion and determining key features of the explosive device. The same technologies will be essential for attribution of a nuclear explosive device if one were ever used in a terrorist attack. Nuclear forensics will also be pertinent to verification of the proposed fissile material cut-off treaty, because it can determine the ‘age’ (i.e. time since the last purification) of nuclear material and thus whether it was produced before a certain date.


The amount of information that can be obtained from application of nuclear forensic techniques depends on access to relevant sites and samples, which is often limited by legal or political considerations.



Vitaly Fedchenko (Russia) is a Researcher with the SIPRI Non-proliferation and Export Controls Project.