CSI comes to nuclear security

By Jerry Sergei Davydov | January 25, 2017

Viewers of television cop shows like “CSI” or its many imitators are familiar with the idea of how forensics can be used to track down a culprit. If you watch and listen closely, you will notice that the detectives often refer to a national collection of crime scene DNA “fingerprints” held on file in a US federal database called CODIS, which helps to narrow down suspects. For example, after DNA has been picked up from a crime scene, it is entered into the system, and software then scans the voluminous database for a match to known previous offenders.

The benefits of such a system in helping to narrow down and identify a list of likely suspects are obvious.

A similar, if less well-known, system has been slowly emerging in nations across the world that could aid in identifying the origin, processing history, and intended use of nuclear materials lost, missing, stolen, or smuggled—a status technically known as “out of regulatory control.” This approach involves the development of a national nuclear forensics library, which uses the identifying characteristics of nuclear materials—their individual “DNA,” if you will—to aid nuclear security investigators. Though this capability has existed in the United States for some years now, it is only now starting to really catch on elsewhere. 

National nuclear forensics libraries are rapidly becoming an integral element of an individual government’s nuclear security architecture, a go-to source for the information necessary to do nuclear forensics. Composed of the technical and administrative information on the nuclear materials produced, used, or stored within a state—and the subject matter expertise necessary to examine forensic samples and draw conclusions—such a library can be a valuable addition to existing nuclear security efforts, further strengthening a nation’s nuclear security culture and providing  empirical evidence to discover any gaps in the domestic nuclear security architecture.

By identifying the processing history, intended use, and production location for all nuclear materials within a state, and collating that information into a national nuclear forensics library, states would have a strong mechanism to help combat illicit trafficking. For example, a library like the one described would enhance a state’s ability to identify and determine the consistency of the nuclear materials used, produced, or stored within its boundaries; promote good practices for maintaining material under regulatory control; and make it easier to exchange information on materials found out of regulatory control nationally and internationally—features similar to CODIS.

An example. How would it work in reality? To give one example, if suspect nuclear material is encountered, a national nuclear forensics library could provide support, enabling investigators to make rapid comparisons of interdicted nuclear material with domestic holdings, and exclude domestic materials that are inconsistent with measurements derived from nuclear forensic analysis. In practic, this means that if some questionable nuclear material was interdicted and  analysis of the ratio of its radioactive thorium to its radioactive uranium indicated that the uranium 235 in it is 20 years old, then investigators could look through the national nuclear forensics library to determine whether there is uranium 235 in the country that fits that age. If, after consulting the library, investigators determined that the only production facility within the state began operations only five years ago, then based on the age of the interdicted sample, that means that the sample is not consistent with material produced in the state and thus most likely came from a neighboring country.

The collection of isotopic compositions, elemental compositions, physical data on nuclear and radioactive materials used, produced, and stored within the state would save investigators from being faced with sorting through potentially thousands of records to determine whether interdicted nuclear materials escaped from surveillance within their borders or were smuggled in from another country.

A national nuclear forensics library can also assist investigators in answering a variety of important questions regarding materials found out of regulatory control, such as whether the material is consistent with the state’s holdings; what the material is and what threat it poses; what the material’s intended use is; where the material is used in the nuclear fuel cycle; if there is more material missing; what facilities are associated with the manufacture, use, or storage of the material; and whether the material shares a common source with a material from another nuclear smuggling case.

Filling a gap. Seizures of illicit nuclear materials have created widespread concern over the possibility of a terrorist organization or a similar “non-state actor” acquiring enough nuclear material to assemble an improvised nuclear device. While important progress has been made in protecting and removing nuclear material, critical work remains in eliminating the vulnerability of tons of nuclear material spread across hundreds of sites in more than 20 countries around the globe.

At the same time, the funding available for nuclear security work is decreasing, while the available evidence shows that the amount of nuclear material may increase. Consequently, while many accomplishments have been made in securing nuclear materials, there are gaps emerging within the global nuclear security system.

Given ever-fluctuating levels of political will and financial resources, it is time for international nuclear security practitioners to consider alternative approaches to creating an effective and enduring global nuclear security system—ones which do not create undue financial burdens and take full advantage of existing mechanisms. Not all states have the same nuclear security challenges, and not all states may have the will to take the same approach in establishing a robust nuclear security architecture. The international community should consider a more scientific approach in targeting capital injections into nuclear security.

One mechanism that can provide data-driven, empirical evidence on nuclear security gaps is a national nuclear forensics library.

This approach is not aimed at superseding nuclear security mechanisms that may already exist. Rather, the goal is to explore how a state can leverage existing mechanisms.

A wider nuclear security context. Because the illicit trafficking of nuclear material goes beyond borders, determining where nuclear material may have escaped is essential to addressing nuclear security gaps. For example, materials may be legitimately mined and milled at one location, isotopically enriched and manufactured into fuel pellets at a second location, shipped to a third location, and subsequently smuggled into a fourth. If the identifying characteristics of suspect nuclear materials are available to investigators, this data can ease the identification of possible diversion points or points-of-entry.

Until now, the use of a national nuclear forensics library has been thought of only as a national-level tool to use in a nuclear smuggling investigation. Without such a library, investigators have little basis to determine the possible origin and process history of the intercepted material.

But the international nuclear security system also depends on maintaining regulatory control of nuclear material. When material is found out of regulatory control—through detection at a point-of-entry or discovered as a result of a clandestine effort—the ability to determine the material’s origin and process history can prove invaluable in identifying and addressing weaknesses in the nuclear security infrastructure.

But by identifying the key vulnerable points where nuclear material may be diverted, national nuclear forensics libraries can also support improvements in material accountability and physical protection. Nuclear security practitioners can use this information for targeted nuclear security remediation efforts.

Where do we go from here? Without a national nuclear forensics library, investigators have few tools to determine the possible origin and process history of interdicted material. The ability to include or exclude likely origins of material provides investigators with the information needed to determine whether there are gaps within a state’s operational nuclear security system.

The development of national nuclear forensics libraries has been supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Nuclear Security Summits. As more and more states undertake the development of such libraries, global confidence in the ability of them to assist in identifying nuclear security gaps is reinforced.

In determining whether material is consistent or inconsistent with domestic holdings, a state has vital information as to whether a nuclear security gap exists at, say, a national facility level or at a point-of-entry, such as a border crossing. This may provide the opportunity for a state to make a self-assessment of its internal and border nuclear security controls, and consequently determine the health of its domestic nuclear security infrastructure as a whole.

Existing nuclear security international guidance, recommendations, and best practices remain the bedrock in developing a methodology for nuclear security. Although states should continue using this documentation, they should consider employing additional approaches that provide targeted information for use in addressing specific nuclear security gaps. Building upon existing mechanisms not only demonstrates to nuclear security decision makers that any and all solutions are being employed, but it also builds communication channels between national nuclear security practitioners and facility-level operators, as well as between neighboring countries. National nuclear forensics libraries can serve as the basis for international dialogue and provide invaluable evidence to demonstrate where gaps remain in the international nuclear security architecture, which can in turn be used in the development of guidance, recommendations, and best practices.

Despite concern that nuclear security is waning, nuclear security practitioners should continue to seek out opportunities to develop new approaches and to think of new approaches. They should continue to try to reinvigorate nuclear security with fresh ideas—such as national nuclear forensics libraries.

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