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Connecting Experts and Institutions to Increase the Effectiveness of Nuclear Forensics

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Connecting scientists, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, nuclear regulators and policy makers strengthens the capabilities to trace stolen or lost radioactive material and support legal proceedings, participants concluded at an IAEA Technical Meeting on Nuclear Forensics: Beyond the Science this month.

Over 150 participants from 80 Member States, INTERPOL and the European Commission attended the technical meeting held from 1 to 4 April in Vienna, Austria to review progress achieved in nuclear forensic science. Nuclear forensics is the examination of nuclear and other radioactive materials using analytical techniques to determine their origin and history in the context of law enforcement and nuclear security investigations.

Participants exchanged experiences involving the successful development of national nuclear forensic programmes and developed a vision for a stronger integration of nuclear forensic capabilities within national nuclear security regimes.

“We have come a long way since the 1990’s when the nuclear forensics emerged as a response to seizures of highly enriched uranium and plutonium,” said Maria Wallenius, Research Scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center and Co-Chair of the Technical Meeting. “With the IAEA’s assistance, the international community has improved nuclear forensic science analytical techniques and enacted tougher and more precise laws for prosecuting the perpetrators.”

However, participants identified as an ongoing challenge the need to create stronger connections supporting the response to a nuclear security event, including the coupling of nuclear forensics science to the requirements of national legal systems as well as potential cooperation in investigations across borders.

“No single agency or ministry can achieve the goals of nuclear forensics by themselves,” said Frank Wong, Senior Scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Co-Chair of the Technical Meeting. “To increase the effectiveness of a national response to a potential nuclear security event, we must take a whole-of-government approach and build a bridge among the scientists, police and prosecutors.”

Many participants also stressed the need for continued development of the workforce and cross-disciplinary education of the next generation of nuclear forensic experts within both the scientific and law enforcement communities. Some highlighted the success of bilateral cooperation in applied training programmes and short-term nuclear forensics practitioner exchanges as ongoing efforts to tackle the concern of an aging workforce.

David Kenneth Smith, Scientific Secretary of the Technical Meeting and Senior Nuclear Security Officer in the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Security, said: “Implementation of nuclear forensics requires not only development and best use of analytical methods consistent with national laws and international legal instruments, it must also be sustained through human capacity building.”

At the meeting many countries showcased their experiences in establishing and sustaining national nuclear forensics capabilities, demonstrating how nuclear forensics has helped them to fulfill their nuclear security responsibilities and achieve a wide array of national security priorities, including enhanced border protection and stronger physical protection systems for their facilities.

The IAEA supports Member States in building on existing technical capabilities in the area of nuclear forensic science. This capacity is part of a State’s security infrastructure for the prevention, detection, and response to theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear or other radioactive materials.