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Nuclear Forensics: Key to Ensuring Nuclear Security

Highly enriched uranium metal being investigated as part of a recent IAEA nuclear forensics training. (Photo: D. Smith/IAEA)

Nuclear material presents a risk if it is unsecured. Materials used throughout the nuclear fuel cycle as well as radioactive "sources" that are used routinely in medicine, industry and research may be lost, abandoned, or removed from inactivated facilities without authorization. They can can also be stolen and smuggled for profit. When nuclear or other radioactive material is no longer under regulatory control, a first priority is determining its exact location and ensuring it remains secured. A second, equally important task is identifying where these materials originated both to address nuclear security vulnerabilities and support enforcement of national laws that prohibit such acts. That is the job of nuclear forensics experts.

Nuclear forensic experts analyze nuclear or radioactive material to determine the material's origin and history.

The IAEA's Office of Nuclear Security and the European Commission's Institute for Transuranium Elements are two of an increasing number of institutions world-wide that work in the emerging field of nuclear forensics.

"We try to get the material to talk to us, to tell us how is was produced, when it was produced, for what purpose it was produced," said Klaus Mayer, head of the nuclear forensics programme at the European Commission's Institute for Transuranium Elements.

The Material Holds the Answers

The key questions that nuclear forensics answers include: What is the material? Does it pose a threat? Who is responsible for the loss? Where did the material originate? Have any national laws been broken?

Forensic experts get the nuclear material to "talk" through comprehensive analysis of the material in a nuclear forensic laboratory. As an industrial product, nuclear materials incorporate attributes - or signatures - of each of the production processes that the material experienced when manufactured. These signatures deliver vital clues for the investigation. Features such as the isotopic content, chemical constituents, and physical shape tell the story of the material's origin, manufacture, use and age.

"This may include geological information from the extraction of uranium ore, or it may include process information from when the ore was concentrated into yellowcake or when this concentrate was isotopically enriched and made into nuclear fuel pellets and burned in a reactor," explains David Smith, Senior Nuclear Security Officer and nuclear forensics expert at the IAEA.

The goal of nuclear forensics is to identify when and how the material got out of regulatory control and to minimize the security threat.

"Very often we can tell where the material came from. Many times we can narrow down the possible origins to a few places," Dr. Mayer added.

Member States can then use the information to assist law enforcement officers in their investigations and to promote stronger nuclear security practices at the originating facility so as to prevent further cases of missing material.

A Global Approach

The IAEA works with its Member States to promote and raise awareness of the benefits of nuclear forensics through international conventions and standards, international cooperation, training and support.

"First, we promote international instruments such as the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. Then, we prepare guidance that takes into account the provisions of such instruments and we assist Member States, upon their request, in the application and use of such guidance. These become the international benchmark for nuclear security, which includes the activity area of nuclear forensics," explained Khammar Mrabit, Director of the IAEA's Office of Nuclear Security.

Member States can use this guidance to develop national programmes to strengthen nuclear security measures.

As a leading international organization committed to assisting Member States in development of effective nuclear security measures, the IAEA provides guidance in the conduct of a nuclear forensics investigation, trains experts in nuclear forensic methodologies, coordinates research and development, and is working to improve nuclear forensic interpretation through preparation of technical recommendations on the design of a national nuclear forensic library. The IAEA Office of Nuclear Security also partners with technical specialists from around the world to support countries that want to develop their own nuclear forensics capacity.

For Mrabit, it is essential to expand Member States' capacity in nuclear forensics. "The threat is global; therefore we need a global response. Our vision is to make the world more secure from nuclear security threats," he concluded.

Last update: 27 Jul 2017

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