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Tracing the Source: Nuclear Forensics & Illicit Nuclear Trafficking

seibersdorf safeguards

Samples can be analyzed for their 'nuclear fingerprints'. (Credit: IAEA)

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Fingerprints and forensic analysis have played important roles in criminal law for well over a century. As science and technology have advanced, investigative methods have become more and more sophisticated, so that now specialists can extract genetic material from a single hair.

In the relatively new field of "nuclear forensics" — which focuses on analyzing the nature, use and origin of nuclear materials -- similar methods are now being applied to determine material characteristics with high degrees of accuracy. Just as with human fingerprinting, nuclear material can be identified, examined, and profiled. The determination of radioisotopes, isotopic and mass ratios, material age, impurity content, chemical form and physical parameters may reveal a "nuclear fingerprint" of the material. Test results, together with other evidence gathered, make it possible to trace the most minute quantities accurately. Analytical methods developed for these purposes are used in international safeguards as well as for nuclear forensics.

In today´s changing world, the IAEA, together with the Institute for Transuranium Elements of the European Union´s Joint Research Commission, is taking the lead in helping countries establish a system for improved response to cases of nuclear smuggling. A primary aim is to upgrade capabilities to accurately identify and characterize seized material. Studies are best carried out in a laboratory already operating highly sophisticated applications, in which both nuclear and non-nuclear materials – from sealing wax, glass and paper to residual radionuclides – can be analysed.

This month, from 21-23 October, international experts in the field are meeting at the IAEA International Conference on Advances in Destructive and Non-Destructive Analysis for Environmental Monitoring and Nuclear Forensics in Karlsruhe, Germany. Participants include laboratory scientists and law enforcement officers who will examine a range of issues, from gathering, protecting, and analyzing material to legal systems and requirements in different countries. Also on the agenda is the IAEA´s role in collective efforts to combat nuclear trafficking, including assisting analytical laboratories and advising on the safe transport of samples seized in trafficking cases.

Discussions additionally will cover technologies to identify the origin of materials seized in cases of nuclear trafficking. One main focus will be on ways to further strengthen nuclear security strategies and cooperation between analytical laboratories. Plans include providing specialized international support for required analytical work. - by Sandra Salvini-Plawen