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Crime Scene to Court Room: Implementing Nuclear Forensic Science

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Using a handheld radiation detection device, Bernard Osei, Technologist at Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, looks for nuclear or radioactive evidence at the simulated crime scene. (Photo: T. Tsvetkov/IAEA)

All evidence tells a story, and when the evidence is nuclear or radioactive material found at a crime scene, nuclear forensics science is a key to understanding the story.

To support Member States in strengthening their nuclear forensic science capacity, the IAEA, in collaboration with the Hungarian National Nuclear Forensic Laboratory, held a practical training course 1-5 October 2018 in Budapest, Hungary.  

During the course, 10 participants from Bahrain, Bulgaria, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa and Thailand advanced their nuclear forensics skills by analysing nuclear and other radioactive material collected at a simulated crime scene.

The participants, guided by course leaders from the Hungarian laboratory and the IAEA, developed a sample nuclear forensic analysis plan to examine the material. First, they analysed the physical characteristics to identify where the material could have been made. Chemical and isotopic measurements followed, to narrow the number of possible production facilities, identify the likely production method, and determine the material’s intended use and age.

Areerak Rueanngeon, Nuclear Chemist at the Office of Atoms for Peace in Thailand and a course participant, said the results then had to be interpreted. “Comparing and contrasting colour, density, and the chemical as well as isotopic composition of the recovered sample with the colour, density, chemical and isotopic composition of materials that are part of the national nuclear forensics library can point to the origin of the material,” she said.  

However, the origin of nuclear material, its production process, and intended use are also only a part of the story. Close cooperation and coordination between nuclear forensic scientists and traditional forensic experts are required to link the analysed material to people and to the event.

“We frequently get the question from the law enforcement, ‘Was the law broken?’” said course leader Éva Kovács-Széles, Head of the Hungarian National Nuclear Forensic Laboratory. “Nuclear forensic scientists can’t answer that. To support an investigation, we can say, for instance, what the material’s characteristics are and whether it may be consistent with any national holdings. But whether the law was broken depends on national laws. Accordingly, ‘who is responsible for breaking the law’ is a question for legal representatives.”

The 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which entered into force in 2016, mandates that offences related to nuclear smuggling, illicit trafficking, and sabotage of nuclear facilities be considered punishable under national law. Nuclear forensic science, in coordination with national law enforcement agencies, supports States Parties’ capacity to prosecute such offences as required under the Convention and the 2005 Amendment.

The IAEA helps Member States, upon request, build on existing capabilities to develop nuclear forensic science capacity. Such capacity is part of States’ security infrastructure for prevention, detection, and response to theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer, or other malicious acts involving nuclear material and other radioactive materials.

Course Instructor, Csilla Csöme, Hungarian National Nuclear Forensic Laboratory, demonstrates categorization of the detected nuclear material. (Photo: T. Tsvetkov/IAEA)

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