Oct 14, 2007
Just about any Sherlock Holmes story finds somebody completely puzzled by how the great detective has been able to name the culprit of a crime, to whom Holmes replies something like, “Why, simply by having the good fortune to get the right clue from the beginning, my dear friend.”
At a webcast hearing this week in Washington, D.C., Carol Burns, a scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, provided testimony on some of the challenges involved in finding people who can get the right clues from the beginning on a major issue of national security.
A House subcommittee on emerging threats was marking up a bill to strengthen national defense against nuclear terrorism, which has been designated by the Bush administration as the number one security threat facing the nation.
The bill, the Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act, authored by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is meant in part to create a new kind of deterrence against a new kind of nuclear threat.
“Nuclear attribution would allow us to identify the provenance of nuclear material intercepted in transit, or God forbid, in the aftermath of a detonation,” Schiff said in his prepared testimony to the committee. “That knowledge would help us decide how to respond and it would also provide a deterrent.”
The bill under discussion would assign an important role to nuclear forensics to identify the perpetrator or the provenance of any nuclear material involved in terrorist activities. As one witness at the hearing noted, the new nuclear deterrent would require “much faster answers to different questions under the pressure of an extreme crisis without prior notice.”
“I staff and maintain our radioanalytical capability, and as such am a ‘consumer’ of the product of our educational pipeline,” said Burns, a Laboratory Fellow and the lab’s group leader in nuclear and radiochemistry, who was asked by the committee to focus her remarks on workforce needs in nuclear forensics.
Sherlock Holmes in the “Adventure of the Norwood Builder” single-handedly put together clues about the strength of the suspect, his skill in the use of a harpoon, some rum and a sealskin pouch containing coarse tobacco to pin his suspicions on a seaman who had been a former whaler.
Today’s nuclear forensics detective is more likely to be part of a team of highly specialized experts, Burns said, many of whom are involved in trying to prevent nuclear incidents from happening in the first place. Some of these specialists can help trace captured materials or remnants of explosions back to where they originated.
Altogether, they include nuclear physicists and engineers, radiochemists, and other scientists who can use creative and sophisticated methods to interpret technical data and read elemental signatures from a smattering of radiological information.
These are the kind of people Carol Burns has to find coming out of research universities and graduate schools.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that only a fraction of what they will need to know can be taught in school. Much of it comes only from the art and lore of experience.
The current staff, as is the case with many other segments of the nuclear workforce is aging. Finding mentors becomes more difficult as time goes on.
Burns said only about 20-30 employees across the weapons complex are said by the laboratories to be spending most of their time on these issues.
“Of those workers the laboratories identified as working on nuclear forensic efforts for more than 50 percent of their effort, the majority are more than 50 years old,” she said. “In some cases we have retirees staffing significant roles.”
She said there was need to replenish this workforce.
Among efforts that are promising she said the Department of Energy has had some success attracting early career candidates from summer schools in nuclear and radiochemistry sponsored by the American Chemical Society.
But research opportunities, developing appropriate curricula and hiring appropriate faculty are subsets of the same issue, along with providing that non-academic training that is especially necessary in nuclear forensics but harder to assure with such a rapidly aging workforce.
LANL’s National Security Education Center, made up of a number of institutes and university partnerships, Burns said, is developing proposals related to education and staff recruiting in these areas.
She said the benefits that she outlined for the committee would go beyond nuclear forensics, to help the nation in other areas, including nonproliferation, nuclear medicine and environmental management.