News: AAAS 2008 Annual Meeting News Blog
AAAS and APS Release Report on Tracing Nuclear Materials
The world faces a shortage of "atomic detectives" that can trace smuggled nuclear materials and advise decision makers on the critical steps to take after a nuclear explosion, according to a new report by AAAS and the American Physical Society (APS).
Michael May, head of the panel that wrote the report, outlined its conclusions 16 February at a symposium and news briefing at the AAAS Annual Meeting. Filling the nearly-empty pipeline of nuclear forensic researchers should be a priority for the United States, he said.
"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," said May, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
The report, "Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, Program Needs," also calls for increased international cooperation in sharing data, upgrading instruments and procedures to identify the source and age of nuclear materials, and stepping up exercises to practice procedures in the event of a nuclear detonation. [Read more about the report's conclusions.]
At the news briefing, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory senior nuclear forensics adviser David Smith said it is imperative for nations to develop a shared framework for identifying nuclear materials "as a first line of defense," adding that "we would rather not respond to the horrific act of a nuclear explosion."
A database maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has documented nearly 1,300 cases of illegal nuclear materials trafficking, usually involving no more than a few grams of material, said Anita Nilsson, director of the office of nuclear security at IAEA. Since 1992 there have been 16 cases reported that involve the seizure of plutonium or highly-enriched uranium.
Nilsson said it is difficult to pinpoint sellers and buyers in the world of nuclear materials trafficking. "In so many cases, materials are discovered from basically nowhere," she said. And in many cases, the sellers appear to be "amateurish and opportunistic," but the fact remains "that these materials should never be circulating in the first place," she added.
At the news briefing, Klaus Lützenkirchen of the Joint Research Center-Institute for Transuranium Elements (JRC-ITE) related a story about nuclear fuel pellets discovered in a private garden in Germany, tracked down by local police following up on a tip. It took only a week for nuclear forensics researchers at the JRC-ITE to provide information on the age and origination of the pellets to the authorities, Lützenkirchen said.
The speakers presented their research at the session "Atomic Detectives: Nuclear Forensics and Combating Illicit Trafficking" at the 2008 AAAS Annual Meeting.