From February 27 to March 6, 2012, 24 experts from 12 countries participated in an international workshop on nuclear forensics hosted by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington. The workshop was sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Nonproliferation and International Security (NIS).
The workshop provided technical information and a hands-on learning environment for practitioners regarding the measurement of nuclear and other radioactive samples for forensics analysis, consistent with the guidelines in IAEA Nuclear Security Series No. 2 “Nuclear Forensics Support.” The event attracted broad international interest; experts attended from Argentina, Brazil, China, Georgia, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Participants benefited from hands-on exercises as well as presentations by several U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories, NIS, the IAEA, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, the European Union’s Institute for Transuranium Elements, the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, and others.
Nuclear forensics is the popular term for the scientific characterization and analysis of nuclear or other radiological materials, which can provide critical information on the place of origin and process history of nuclear materials. Just as law enforcement officials analyze human fingerprints after a crime to determine “who did it,” the science of nuclear forensics allows experts to develop a highly accurate “nuclear fingerprint” to trace the origin of nuclear material—a valuable tool for combatting nuclear smuggling and ensuring that nuclear material is used only for peaceful purposes. Nuclear forensics investigations gather “evidence” by determining the material’s age, isotopic and mass ratios, impurity content, physical parameters, and other characteristics. When illicit nuclear trafficking occurs, experts can use nuclear forensics to pinpoint where the material came from—and then work with responsible officials to ensure the event is not repeated.
International cooperation in nuclear forensics is one of many ways in which NIS is working to implement U.S. commitments made at the Nuclear Security Summit convened by President Obama in April 2010. Progress on nuclear forensics and other efforts to secure nuclear materials will be reviewed at the highest levels at the next Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, on March 26–27, 2012.