by Cynthia Lee, UCLA Today
The nation’s ability to pinpoint the source of terrorists' nuclear weapons or materials is in decline, according to a National Academy of Sciences committee of experts headed by Chancellor Emeritus Albert Carnesale
The committee found that the highly specialized task of analyzing discovered or seized nuclear materials, devices or explosion debris is being hampered. Global knowledge that the U.S. can track down the source of nuclear materials that are stolen by or provided to terrorists is considered an important deterrent.
But now nuclear forensics is waning due to declining funding, an aging scientific workforce diminished by retirements, a reliance on procedures and tools developed during the Cold War, and a complex organizational structure with no central authority and no consensus on strategic requirements to guide the program.
“Although U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities are substantial and can be improved, right now they are fragile, under resourced, and, in some respects, deteriorating,” the committee noted in a summary of its unclassified, abbreviated report, “Nuclear Forensics: A Capacity at Risk
To do the evaluation requested by three federal agencies, a panel of 11 experts headed by Carnesale — a professor of public policy who trained as a nuclear engineer and represented the United States in high-level negotiations on defense and energy issues — was given wide access to classified information. “The government was quite open, and we had access to very sensitive materials,” said Carnesale from his office in the School of Public Affairs. He also holds a joint appointment in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA.
Last January, the committee released a very detailed classified report to the three agencies commissioning the study: the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense’s Threat Reduction Agency and the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy. On July 29, an unclassified, abbreviated version of the panel’s report was released to the public by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.
“Even before 9/11, presidents maintained that the gravest threat facing the United States is the danger of terrorists detonating nuclear explosive devices in this country,” Carnesale said. “One of the factors that would help deter this threat is to have the terrorists — or the nations that might help them — know that the United States would be able to determine where the device and materials came from.”
Equally important, Carnesale said, is that having this critical information would also help the United States determine whether any more stolen materials are out there and whether there is a security gap that should be closed.
“If deterrence doesn’t work and a nuclear device is detonated, how might the United States respond? You want to be quite certain who the culprit is before you respond militarily. That represents a very high standard,” he said.
In the aftermath of the Cold War
But these technical capabilities, the committee discovered, rely on a shrinking nuclear weapons program for facilities, equipment, personnel and funding. They stem from the Cold War and a bygone era when scientists monitored the testing of nuclear weapons by the United States and by other countries.
“We haven’t conducted a nuclear weapons test since 1992, and we haven’t designed a new nuclear weapon for almost as long,” Carnesale said. “That’s generally a good thing, but it does mean that many of the people who did these analyses have retired and that the facilities they used are very much out-of-date. Several of these facilities lack the latest technology, and they are not up to the safety and environmental standards we have today.”
Universities can help remedy this, he said, by training specialists for the field. Rather than just sitting around waiting for an emergency, these scientists would need opportunities to hone their skills throughout their careers, Carnesale said.
A need for organizational clarity
The panel also called for a clear, streamlined organizational plan with a single set of common goals and strategic requirements as well as appropriate funding. Currently, the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for coordinating the nation’s nuclear forensics program. However, it has no budget authority over the national laboratories, where much of this work is done. The labs, some of which are managed by a consortium including the University of California, are under the Department of Energy. But if a nuclear device goes off in the country, the FBI is in charge, Carnesale explained.
The committee recommended that the national laboratories, which are not law enforcement facilities, employ some of the first-rate principles, procedures and standards that have been developed within modern forensic science. It also recommended ways in which regularly conducted simulation drills could be designed to be more realistic.
The committee also pointed out that much information about existing nuclear materials and facilities is already in databases kept by the United States and other countries. The Executive Office of the President and the State Department should decide what information the U.S. is willing to share with other nations and then seek international agreements that will lead to readily accessible shared databases.
Signs of progress and hope
Since the classified report was issued, some headway has been made by the government, Carnesale said in a preface to the abbreviated version of the report. There has been, for example, a modest increase in funding for nuclear forensics. Likewise, the President has issued a five-year strategic plan for work in this area as part of the 2010 Defense Authorization Act.
An interagency policy committee will soon be initiated to develop strategic requirements for nuclear forensics. In addition, a national program on nuclear forensics is now funding fellowships for graduate students and supporting professors in a few mission-relevant fields. A nuclear forensics summer school has been created.
“Much work remains to be done on matters raised by the committee,” said Carnesale in his conclusion, which ends on a hopeful note. “It appears that these issues have been recognized by the responsible federal agencies and the White House, and steps are being taken to address them.”