Oct 11, 2007

Dwindling Scientific Expertise Threatens U.S. Nuclear Forensics

By Jon Fox
Global Security Newswire

[Video and witness testimony (including that of LANL's Carol Burns) from yesterday's House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology hearing on H.R. 2631, the Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act are available here.]

WASHINGTON — The U.S. ability to ascertain the origins of nuclear material relies on a declining number of nuclear scientists with crucial radiochemical experience, and in a decade the nation’s government laboratories could face a serious shortage of those experts (see GSN, June 1), a Los Alamos National Laboratory official said yesterday.

There are just a handful of scientists working on the issue full time, but perhaps more troubling is the age of those scientists. The majority of scientists at the government laboratories who spent more than half of their time working on what experts call nuclear forensics and attribution are older than 50, according to a survey conducted by the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center.

“In some cases we have retirees staffing significant roles,” Carol Burns, head of the nuclear and radiochemistry division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told a congressional panel.

Nuclear forensics describes the process of analyzing nuclear material either in a weapon, before or after detonation, or intercepted during smuggling. The goal would be to determine where it came from, what those in the field call attribution.

Within the national research laboratories there are about 20 to 30 people spending most of their time on forensics. When one adds those giving some smaller portion of their attention to the issue that number increases to about 200, Burns told a House Homeland Security subcommittee on science and emerging threats.

While the number of scientists working in the field might be modest, the federal government has been quietly devoting additional resources to nuclear forensics and the challenge of attribution, establishing the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center and working to collect a database of nuclear “fingerprints.” Such a database could allow analysts to pinpoint the origin of fissile material either before or after a nuclear blast.

“Nuclear forensics is now increasingly recognized as having the potential to serve as a central pillar of deterrence in the 21st century,” Vayl Oxford, head of the Homeland Security Department’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, told the panel yesterday. “The importance of nuclear forensics cannot be understated.”

Such a crucial scientific pursuit — one that experts admit still poses a number of technical challenges — rests on “the shoulders of a relatively small cadre of experts at the national labs,” Oxford said. “We are all facing the challenges of recruiting and retaining the nuclear experts that we rely on so heavily to achieve our mission.”

As the most experienced radiochemists age and retire, the national laboratories could face a serious problem 10 years down the road, Burns said. Unfortunately, addressing that shortage is not as simple as looking to the best universities for the next crop of physicists.

Since the late 1960s the number of students earning doctorates in fields such as radiochemistry and nuclear chemistry has steadily declined, as has the number of faculty in those fields. A 2005 survey found that 75 percent of professors in these fields were more than 50 years old.

The expertise required for nuclear forensics is not something a scientist is likely to have developed in a university setting but rather knowledge that must come firsthand or be conveyed by experienced workers, Burns noted.

“For instance, both at Los Alamos and nationwide, we have a dwindling number of radiochemists who have analyzed the debris from a nuclear explosion and worked with designers to assess the nature of a device,” she told the committee. “It takes years of working with senior staff and retirees to build this competence in a new worker.”

Burns told lawmakers that a number of programs, including an Energy Department-funded summer school for undergraduate students interested in nuclear and radiochemistry, are helping to funnel future scientists toward graduate programs relevant to the challenges of nuclear forensics.

Still, that may not be enough, and Burns said it is likely that the U.S. laboratories would be unable to build a sufficient base of workers trained academically in the necessary field.

Considering that, “it is important to enlist scientists from other disciplines in solving the technical challenges of nuclear forensics,” she wrote in her prepared testimony for the committee. “We must provide a broader range of scientists with access to the facilities and tools to conduct work on radiological and nuclear [material], perhaps through cooperative programs at the national laboratories.”

While a potential scarcity of scientists confronts those on the frontlines of nuclear forensic research, the government agencies involved have been pushing ahead to advance U.S. capabilities.

Recent emphasis in the forensics field has been on reducing the time between collecting nuclear samples and completing the analysis of their origin. “In some cases weeks or months may be required,” said Steven Aoki, deputy undersecretary for counterterrorism at the Energy Department, said.

If a nuclear weapon were to detonate in the United States, weeks to months might be an unacceptable timeline to determine the origin of the device. A recent nuclear attribution workshop at the National Defense University stressed the intense pressure the president and his advisers would be under to rapidly determine the weapon’s return address.

Such a determination would be necessary to enable a response from the United States and would help prevent a potential follow-up attack, according testimony from Michael Evenson, associate director for operations at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

The hearing was held before the committee was scheduled to consider a bill calling on the president to pursue international agreements to lay the framework for more effective attribution efforts, such as information sharing about known nuclear signatures.

The bill, “The Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act,” also includes the authorization of $20 million annually for the next three years to fund attribution efforts within the Homeland Security Department. The committee, however, was unable to muster enough members to vote on the proposed legislation.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Dingell-berry and his sidekick, little Stupie, don't care about no stupid nuclear forensics nor national security stuff.

Shuts the place down, sez they. Fires all them pointed-headed geeks. Time to turn Northern New Mexico into another "Michigan Miracle".

High unemployment, bankruptcies, and lots of foreclosures. That'll teach all them people up thar in Los Alamos, for sure! I hears that their Dim-ocrat friends, Tommy and Billy, have even agreed to help Mr. Dingell-berry with the dirty work. Sure enuf!

Anonymous said...

Certainly, the RIF issues are more important to most LANS employees, at the moment, than long-range lab capabilities, but it would be good to have some more comment than 9:48's. Just for the record.

In the linked record of testimonies, it is noted that only the LANL person at the hearing provided an address for follow-up comments. It would appear LANL, in this case, way outclasses the State Department and the FBI.

P&TB, please consider posting the related article that appeared in Sunday's LA Monitor to see what comments it generates. Thanks.

Pinky and The Brain said...

It's posted.

Also, the first story I posted on this topic received 17 comments.