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US Not Set Up To Trace Nuclear Terrorist Device In Aftermath, Report Says

February 20, 2008
Stanford University
The first question asked after an atomic explosion in the US (or elsewhere) would be, "Who did this to us?" But the US ability to answer that question rapidly has faded since the end of the Cold War. A former director of the nuclear weapons laboratory in Livermore, California says a rejuvenated nuclear forensics program is urgently needed.

A terrorist nuclear explosion devastates Manhattan, but no group takes credit. The pressure on the U.S. president to retaliate is intense. Acting on sketchy information, the president orders an attack, but it turns out to be the wrong terrorists, in the wrong country. Things go downhill from there.

To avoid that and other nightmare scenarios, a group of 12 scientists with extensive nuclear expertise, headed by Stanford physicist Michael May, is urging an international push to improve the science of nuclear forensics.

May is a research professor emeritus and former co-director the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He also is the former director of the U.S. nuclear weapons design laboratory in Livermore, Calif. Other members have experience in nuclear intelligence and defense research. One member, Jay Davis, was a United Nations inspector in Iraq.

They say there is an urgent need for more nuclear detectives, armed with science PhDs and instilled with the instincts of an investigator. And those detectives will need training, advanced equipment and stronger ties to intelligence agencies, political leaders and law enforcement.

With the right mobile equipment, nuclear detectives could sift through the debris and the radioactive cloud of an attack in this country or elsewhere and quickly glean crucial information, the scientists argue in a 60-page report was discussed Feb. 16 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Using radiochemistry techniques and access to proposed international databases that include actual samples of uranium and plutonium from around the world, the nuclear investigators might be able to tell the president--and the world--where the bomb fuel came from, or at least rule out some suspects.

"Nuclear forensics can make a difference," May said in an interview.

But the U.S. capacity for such investigations has deteriorated since the end of the Cold War, when the capabilities were well supported at the nuclear weapons laboratories. "Presently available trained personnel are highly skilled, but there are not enough of them to deal with an emergency and they are not being replaced," according to May. "A program to refill the pipeline of trained personnel should be undertaken."

There's also a need for development of new equipment, both in the lab and on the street, which could provide a faster analysis during a crisis. The authors also recommend more coordination between scientists and law enforcement; even simple steps such as trading phone numbers could prove crucial. "You really want the top decision makers to know where to get information," May said.

The remnants of an atomic explosion carry a host of clues, even at the microscopic level, including crystal structures and impurities.

Uranium, for example, varies in isotopic composition and impurities according to where it was mined and how it was processed. Weapons-grade plutonium can be exposed during its production to different neutron fluxes and energies, depending on the particular reactor used. It is also possible to establish the length of time plutonium spent in the reactor.

In some cases, it may be possible for scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory or Los Alamos National Laboratory to use their experience, intelligence data and software codes to reverse-engineer a nuclear bomb from its debris and learn telltale details of the design of the explosive.

These clues would not be the equivalent of fingerprints or DNA, May said, but would in most cases allow officials to at least rule out or in broad classes of possible sources.

Tracing bomb material to its source may be only the beginning of an investigation, rather than the end, as the authors acknowledge. Discovering that a terrorist explosive was made of uranium stolen from a specific site in Russia, for example, does not identify the terrorists, but it does provide a starting point, especially if there is suspicion that the bomb makers had inside help.

In their report, the scientists recommend that atomic sleuthing be applied also to radioactive materials seized by law enforcement agencies or border guards. Tracking the substances back to their source might prevent or deter attacks, they said. The authors note that the International Atomic Energy Agency's Illicit Trafficking Database contains 1,080 confirmed events involving illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials between 1993 and 2006.

Convincing the nuclear states to share database information about their own uranium and plutonium may be difficult, May said. He suggests that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has databases of its own, could play an important role.

Key recommendations from the report are listed below.

Advanced Lab and Field Equipment and Numerical Modeling

Forensics technologies need to be developed to allow for more rapid field measurements and accurate laboratory analysis. Also, improvements in numerical simulations that can provide weapon design information are needed.

Workforce Development

There are about 35 to 50 personnel working on nuclear forensics at the national labs, not enough to deal with an emergency, and many are reaching retirement age. A program to develop trained personnel should be undertaken that could include: funding research at universities, graduate scholarships and fellowships, internships at the labs and incentives that stimulate industrial support of faculty positions.

International Cooperation and Sample-Matching Database Development

The speed and accuracy of nuclear forensics would be significantly enhanced through a comprehensive global sample-matching database.


The existing counter-terrorism exercise programs must test the actions, coordination, communications and policies that would be needed at all levels in the event of a nuclear detonation anywhere in the world. Exercises should be structured to illustrate the strengths and limitations of nuclear forensics, as well as to test capability and coordination in light of both the time urgent needs of the situation and also the ability to communicate to the public and manage expectations.

Review and Evaluation Groups

The U.S. Government should establish two panels of independent experts: one to systematically review, evaluate and keep records on the exercises recommended above; the other to advise the U.S. government in real time of the results of nuclear forensics and what they mean in the event of an emergency.

The report, Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, Program Needs, was written by a joint working group of the AAAS and the American Physical Society. The authors of the report are as follows.

  • Michael May, Chair, Stanford University
  • Reza Abedin-Zadeh, International Atomic Energy Agency (retired)
  • Donald Barr, Los Alamos National Laboratory (retired)
  • Albert Carnesale, University of California-Los Angeles
  • Philip E. Coyle, Center for Defense Information
  • Jay Davis, Hertz Foundation
  • Bill Dorland, University of Maryland
  • Bill Dunlop, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Steve Fetter, University of Maryland
  • Alexander Glaser, Princeton University
  • Ian D. Hutcheon, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Francis Slakey, American Physical Society
  • Benn Tannenbaum, American Association for the Advancement of Science

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Stanford University. "US Not Set Up To Trace Nuclear Terrorist Device In Aftermath, Report Says." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 February 2008. <>.
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Stanford University. "US Not Set Up To Trace Nuclear Terrorist Device In Aftermath, Report Says." ScienceDaily. (accessed March 25, 2017).