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U.S. Faces Drop in Nuclear Forensics Capabilities, Report Says

(Jul. 29) -A scientist conducts nuclear forensics research at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities could backslide without improved management and more funding, according to a National Research Council report made public today (U.S. Argonne National Laboratory photo). (Jul. 29) -A scientist conducts nuclear forensics research at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities could backslide without improved management and more funding, according to a National Research Council report made public today (U.S. Argonne National Laboratory photo).

A report issued today by the National Research Council says the United States is facing continued reductions in its ability to determine the point of origin of material used in an act of nuclear terrorism, the New York Times reported (see GSN, Feb. 17).

“Although U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities are substantial and can be improved, right now they are fragile, underresourced and, in some respects, deteriorating,” according to the report. “Without strong leadership, careful planning and additional funds, these capabilities will decline.”

The document is a summary of a classified report finished early this year on behalf of the Defense and Homeland Security departments and the National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the national laboratories that help lead forensics activities.

Nuclear forensics specialists would study fallout and radioactive material deposited by an atomic or radiological "dirty bomb" blast to determine who made the weapon and who had set it off, according to the Times. That know-how has become increasingly important in the face of potential acts of nuclear terrorism against the United States, officials say.

The research council's panel of nuclear experts, though, took issue with federal agencies' handling of the program. While a number of departments have a role in forensics activities, the effort has been operated “without central authority and with no consensus on strategic requirements to guide the program,” the report says.

The complicated nature of the multiagency initiative, according to the experts, “hampers the program and could prove to be a major hindrance operationally.”

Other issues include the limited number of forensics specialists, the increasing age of the equipment and infrastructure used in the program and availability of sufficient funding, the report says. Its authors urged the government to provide the forensics effort with more money, improved planning, distinct leadership roles and drills that hew more closely to real-life scenarios.

Improvements at the federal level seem to have been made since a secret version of the report was submitted in January, said nuclear engineer Albert Carnesale, who led the panel.

However, “much work,” he stated, “remains to be done" (William Broad, New York Times, July 29).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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