Nuclear forensics: more talk, little funding

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By Roger Snodgrass

A month past the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a robust program for nuclear forensics has been touted as a future livelihood for the nuclear weapons labs, but serious plans and recommendations have yet to get to the drawing board.

The possibility of nuclear weapons reaching the hands of terrorists, while technically difficult, has often been described as a matter of “not if, but when.”

Analysts have remarked on the problem of attributing responsibility for detonation of a “dirty bomb,” which could be used to disperse radioactive material in urban settings, as one of many scenarios that might someday require a complex and coordinated response.

“A forensic ability that can trace material to the originating reactor or enrichment facility could discourage state cooperation with terrorist elements and encourage better security for nuclear weapons usable materials,” according to an influential scientific report delivered earlier this year.

“In addition, most terrorist organizations will not have members skilled in all aspects of handling nuclear weapons or building an improvised nuclear device. That expertise is found in a small pool of people and a credible attribution capability may deter some who are principally motivated by financial, rather than ideological concerns.”

Meanwhile in Washington, the Defense Authorization Act awaiting President Bush’s signature does contain a set of provisions for improving and revitalizing nuclear forensics, including new fellowships and plans for researching and developing international safeguards, seismic monitoring and nuclear detection technologies.

The item is of interest to the National Nuclear Security Administration and its nuclear weapons laboratories, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, because they are being asked to help plan and ultimately host these enhanced capabilities.

In recent announcements on the transformation of the weapons complex NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino, referred to the nuclear forensics in a list of new responsibilities in the area of non-proliferation, counterterrorism and nuclear response.

In congressional testimony over the last two years D’Agostino has cited the goal of consolidating nuclear materials as enabling NNSA to increase attention to other national security issues, like forensics.

The authorizing language for “Enhancing Nuclear Forensics Capabilities” Section 3114 in the Defense act, was attached near the end of lengthy measure that passed in the final days before Congress adjourned for the fall campaign.

The bill reflects recommendations from the report cited above, “Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, Program Needs,” which was prepared by a joint working group of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Donald Barr, a retired nuclear chemist and former deputy group leader of nuclear chemistry at LANL was a member of the working group, as was Benn Tannenbaum, who received his Ph.D. in experimental physics from the University of New Mexico and is currently associate program director of the Center for Science Technology and Security Policy at AAAS.

Tannenbaum said this morning that the authorization measure called for implementation of all the report’s recommendations except for one calling for an external review.

Among the recommendations that were included were those that addressed the need for international cooperation, availability of trained personnel, developing lab and field equipment and numerical modeling and improved program of exercises.

“But the appropriators, by not finishing any new appropriations bills, haven’t given any new money to this program,” Tannenbaum said.

The only new funding for this fiscal year he pointed out was included in the generally “flat funding” appropriations for Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and military construction. In that provision the Homeland Security Department was granted $16,900,000 for the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center, including $1,000,000 for the new fellowship program.