Wanted: More Atomic Sleuths to Trace Seized Nuclear Material

Countries are Working with the IAEA to Reinforce Nuclear Forensic Capabilities

Forensic scientists investigate and profile samples of nuclear and radioactive material seized in trafficking cases. Characteristics of known materials, such as uranium oxide samples shown here, are used for comparison studies. (Credit: LLNL, USA)

More atomic sleuths - scientists with expertise in what´s known as nuclear forensics - are needed to reinforce the world´s nuclear security, IAEA officials and scientists report.

Making progress represents a key international challenge, emphasized Anita Nilsson, head of the IAEA Office of Nuclear Security, in sessions at the 2008 conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, USA. She participated in a press briefing and sessions on nuclear forensics and security.

"Reports of illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material demonstrate the problem´s global dimensions and the importance of building up systems to detect and prevent cases," she says. The IAEA Illicit Trafficking Database contains more than a thousand confirmed incidents of illicit nuclear trafficking reported over the past 15 years.

Forensic scientists investigate and profile samples of nuclear and radioactive material seized in trafficking cases. But there are not enough of them. A new study from two leading US scientific groups warns that a serious shortage of nuclear forensic specialists is jeopardizing analytical capabilities essential in global efforts to prevent trafficking and potential acts of terrorism.

Nuclear forensics - sometimes described as "fingerprinting" nuclear and radiological material - was born in the shadow of the cold war when concerns rose over nuclear smuggling. The science draws upon sophisticated instruments and methods to analyze the nature, use, and origin of materials. What scientists learn from seized uranium, plutonium, or other nuclear and radioactive materials is used as evidence by law enforcement agencies for prosecution of criminal cases.

The IAEA is working with the USA, the European Joint Research Centre´s Institute of Transuranium Elements, and other partners in the field. Work includes a multi-year global research project that aims to help countries strengthen their capabilities to apply nuclear forensics in illicit trafficking cases and preserve results as evidence, notes Reza Abedin-Zadeh of the IAEA´s Office of Nuclear Security who participated in the new US study and manages the research project.

Also being promoted - through the IAEA publication Nuclear Forensics Support and other channels - are procedures that enable countries to receive support from a global network of nuclear forensic laboratories. Global cooperation additionally is targeting the need to establish a global registry rooted in databases providing reference data on nuclear and radioactive materials for nuclear forensic purposes.

"Modern nuclear forensics opens possibilities to compare the origin and characteristics of nuclear materials seized in one year with that recovered in other years," says Dr. Nilsson. "That´s a very important step."

Last update: 24 February 2015