A State capable of identifying the origin and history of intercepted nuclear or radioactive material can have a deterrent effect. This is why nuclear forensics — the examination of nuclear and other radioactive material as part of criminal or nuclear security investigations — is an important tool.
“A country with strong nuclear forensics capabilities is not the best target for terrorist groups,” said Éva Kovács-Széles, Head of the Nuclear Security Department at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Centre for Energy Research.
But establishing a nuclear forensics programme is not an easy task. The case of Hungary — whose forensics laboratory was recently designated as the first IAEA Collaborating Centre in nuclear security — is a good example for the region and for the world, said David Smith, nuclear security coordinator (forensics) at the IAEA.
Scientists specialized in nuclear forensics examine samples of nuclear and other radioactive materials using a variety of analytical techniques. The results of the examination provide information on the potential use, manufacture and age of the materials, which helps law enforcement officials make informed decisions regarding a potential criminal prosecution.
Hungary, which operates a nuclear power plant, a research reactor and a training reactor, started working on nuclear forensics in the 1990s as a response to a series of illicit trafficking events. Today, it has a well-equipped centralized national Nuclear Forensic Laboratory with a team of specialists who conduct research and perfect their methods. These ensure that all material is secured, documented and protected, and all appropriate precautions are taken to preserve the evidence.
The country has also established the prototype of a national nuclear forensics library, a database that contains information about all its nuclear material. Having a record of all materials is useful, Kovács-Széles said, because when something goes missing, authorities can easily identify it through comparisons.
But none of this infrastructure would have an impact without a properly trained team to operate it, Kovács-Széles added.
“We’ve established a nuclear security working group in Hungary where all the responsible authorities sit to think and consult together: the Hungarian police, the bomb disposal unit, the traditional forensics institute, the counter terrorism centre, law enforcement agencies and so on.”
Close cooperation between law enforcement officials and nuclear scientists can be a key tool to prevent radiological terror attacks or to solve radiological crimes, Kovács-Széles said.
“We have 20 years of real experience in investigating confiscated nuclear material and radiological crime scenes. We have an increasing scientific knowledge. And we have a good and strong connection with the IAEA, a connection that goes back to the 90s.”
We have 20 years of real experience in investigating confiscated nuclear material and radiological crime scenes. We have an increasing scientific knowledge. And we have a good and strong connection with the IAEA, a connection that goes back to the 90s.