U.S. Prepared to Track Source of Nuclear Strike, Book Says

(Dec. 22) -The United States has one air-sampling, "Constant Phoenix" aircraft left in service after deploying 10 during the Cold War (U.S. Air Force).
(Dec. 22) -The United States has one air-sampling, "Constant Phoenix" aircraft left in service after deploying 10 during the Cold War (U.S. Air Force).

A new books says that technological advancements have helped to prepare the United States to identify the source of a nuclear weapon used against the nation, MSNBC reported Friday (see GSN, July 22).

“Not only can intelligence help prevent a nuclear terrorist attack, but also in the event one occurs, it may be able to identify the entity responsible and those who contributed, particularly by providing a bomb or components,” intelligence historian Jeffrey Richelson wrote in Defusing Armageddon.

U.S. officials believe that any nuclear-armed terrorist organization is likely to have received the weapon or key parts from a nation rather than through its own efforts, Richelson wrote. The response to an act of nuclear terrorism could be based on determining where the weapon originated. The capability to determine the source could also serve as a deterrent, according to U.S. authorities.

The National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center would lead work in any post-attack situation.

Should a nuclear strike occur, heat-detecting Defense Support Program satellites and Global Positioning System satellites would be used to find the exact location of detonation. An Air Force WC-135 equipped with radiation sensors and sampling technology would be used to collect debris from the event; Richeslson noted, though, that the number of operating aircraft has dropped from 10 during the Cold War to one today.

A nuclear-signature database, produced through U.S. intelligence efforts, could help identify the nation of origin of the highly enriched uranium or plutonium used to fuel the bomb.

“The possibility of attribution stems from the fact that every nuclear device has distinct signatures. These include physical, chemical, elemental and isotopic properties that provide clues as to what material was in the weapon and its construction,” according to the book, scheduled for publication in January. “The shape, size, and texture of the material would determine the bomb’s physical signature. The bomb’s unique molecular components would determine the device’s chemical signatures.”

Other information that could be determined would include the type, age and operating status of the reactor that produced plutonium in a weapon, or the type of centrifuge used to prepare uranium for that purpose, MSNBC reported.

"By comparing the results of the initial analysis to a database of known reactor types or samples of HEU produced by different enrichment processes, forensic workers might determine the origin of the material or at least narrow the field of viable suspects, eventually pinning the blame on the culprit with the assistance of additional intelligence and data,” the book says.

This information could lead to identifying the bomb designer. Determining the type of weapon used in an attack could indicate whether a nation had been involved in its development or if an extremist organization produced the bomb without outside support, according to Richelson.

Continued updates to the nuclear database are key to the detection effort, the author said. If that does not occur, “confidence that the United States does not have samples a country’s nuclear DNA might make that country willing to provide terrorists with a bomb or nuclear material.”

Both Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), nominee for secretary of state, have supported additional funding for U.S. nuclear forensics and detection efforts. That could indicate that the programs are likely to be supported by the incoming Obama administration.

Richelson noted that the United States is better technologically prepared to determine the origin of a weapon than to detect it before it can be used: "It may be easier to determine who was behind a terrorist nuclear attack than to prevent it" (Robert Windrem, MSNBC, Dec. 19).

December 22, 2008
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A new books says that technological advancements have helped to prepare the United States to identify the source of a nuclear weapon used against the nation, MSNBC reported Friday (see GSN, July 22).