Following the Clues: The Role of Forensics in Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

By Niemeyer, Sidney; Smith, David K. | Arms Control Today, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Following the Clues: The Role of Forensics in Preventing Nuclear Terrorism


Niemeyer, Sidney, Smith, David K., Arms Control Today


Although the more than 50 incidents of trafficking in nuclear and radiological materials each year are worrisome, these cases also provide valuable insight to the movement of these materials worldwide. Conducting thorough investigations that utilize nuclear forensics techniques to determine the source of interdicted nuclear materials can help prevent additional trafficking and ultimately terrorist use of nuclear weapons.

After all, the most likely early warning of an adversary's planned nuclear attack will be previous involvement in illicit transfer of nuclear materials. Until now, however, local authorities have viewed such incidents as narrow violations of domestic laws rather than as threats to national and international security.

If nuclear forensic investigations become the norm for interdicted nuclear materials, investigators could analyze nuclear materials, devices or associated material to identify the source and the route of transit and ultimately help to identify the traffickers.1 In particular, a nuclear forensics investigation might help answer such questions as: Is there a leak in one of the known holdings of nuclear material? Where was legitimate conttol lost? How did the material come to be where we found it? Can we link this material to the perpetrators? Is this case connected to previous cases?

A case becomes more significant if it can be linked to other instances demonstrating a sustained effort to sell or obtain nuclear material. Even some incidents that appear to constitute a relatively low threat, for example, trafficking in low-enriched uranium, ought to be investigated because such commerce may portend more serious threats. For example, an adversary may be attempting "trial runs" to test the ability to tiansport nuclear material without detection. Experience from law enforcement indicates that the combined evidence from two related cases enhances the probability of solving them both.

Once the difficult task of detection and interdiction has been accomplished, nuclear forensics should be used to understand the history of the interdicted material. If the source of the leak can be identified, steps can be taken to close that leak. A scenario that calls for a particularly rapid nuclear forensics investigation is one in which the perpetrators are close to assembling and detonating more than one nuclear bomb. The attacks of September 11, 2001, taught us that if a group of terrorists possess sufficient material, they might well attack multiple targets. Nuclear forensics, applied in time, can be the key to thwarting such a coordinated, multipronged attack.

Indeed, the use of nuclear forensics in a pre-detonation scenario may prove more effective as a preventative measure and detenent than the more acknowledged scenario of using such techniques in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.2 Deterrence works only when an adversary perceives that the consequences of its actions will be met by a credible and exacting response. In the case of a nuclear detonation, the typical stated (or implied) response is commensurately severe. Yet, some have questioned the government's willingness to launch a devastating counterattack against those perceived to be responsible, especially when the evidence against the adversary might be less than unequivocal. By contrast, when the episode involves intercepting nuclear materials at an earlier stage, the response against a supplier could be less draconian and thereby viewed as more credible. Earlier intervention allows decision-makers more time to craft a broader and more measured response.

The time is right to promote the deterrent function of nuclear forensics. Several international instruments are now in place to advance forensic capabilities internationally. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 obligates states to take steps to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and supporting technologies. The United States and Russia have recently spearheaded the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which provides for cooperation between law enforcement agencies to address the problem of the spread of radiological materials. …

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