Oct 10, 2007
WASHINGTON (AP) — If terrorists use nuclear weapons to attack the U.S., Americans immediately would want to know who is responsible. But the nation is ill equipped now to quickly track down the make and origin of nuclear materials.
It could take months to analyze and identify nuclear material, officials said Wednesday — too long in today's threat environment.
Security officials say a nuclear attack by terrorists is the No. 1 threat facing the U.S., and one key to preventing such a strike is to define the nature and source of a nuclear device.
"I think the jury is out in terms of how fast we're ever going to be able to do this," said Vayl Oxford, the Homeland Security Department's top counterproliferation official.
In the past year, the government has paid greater attention to the importance of nuclear forensics, a subject not previously given high priority, Oxford said.
Oxford and other nuclear experts in the government testified before a House subcommittee about how the departments of Energy, Homeland Security, State and Justice, as well as national laboratories, are working on the issue.
Reaching agreements with other countries to share sensitive information about their nuclear materials is a priority, said Steven Aoki, a counterterrorism official at the Energy Department.
Congress is considering a bill that would ask the president for agreements with other countries to share information on the makings of their nuclear materials. Maintaining a database with this information would help identify nuclear material before or after an attack and serve as a deterrent to nations that continue to produce these weapons.
"Highly capable forensics and attribution would enable this nation to stop follow-on attacks and serve to deter states that may assist nuclear terrorists," said Michael K. Evenson, associate director for operations at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
While the Bush administration and lawmakers may recognize the importance of tracing nuclear materials back to their origins, fewer people are entering the field of nuclear forensics, said Carol Burns of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Most of the experts are older than 50 and there are few radiological chemists left who have analyzed debris from a nuclear explosion, Burns said.