House and Senate Defense Bills Support Nuclear Forensics Program

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Publication date: 
23 May 2008

"A believable attribution capability may help to discourage behavior that could lead to a nuclear event."  - "Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, Program Needs"

Provisions have been included in the Senate and House versions of the FY 2009 defense authorization bill to strengthen the future capabilities of the federal government to determine the source of nuclear materials used in a nuclear terrorist event.   Many of the provisions in this legislation reflect the recommendations of a Joint Working Group of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On February 16, the APS and AAAS issued a 59-page report that is intended for Congress, U.S. government agencies, and other institutions interested in nuclear forensics.  The report characterizes nuclear forensics and its potential to prevent and identify unattributed nuclear attacks.  The Joint Working Group also offers policy, resource, and staffing recommendations.  The report describes the rationale for a nuclear forensics program as follows:

"A believable attribution capability may help to discourage behavior that could lead to a nuclear event. The chain of participants in a nuclear terrorist event most likely includes a national government or its agents, since nearly all nuclear weapons usable material is at least notionally the responsibility of governments. A forensics capability that can trace material to the originating reactor or enrichment facility could discourage state cooperation with terrorist elements and encourage better security for nuclear weapon usable materials.  In addition, most terrorist organizations will not have members skilled in all aspects of handling nuclear weapons or building an improvised nuclear device. That expertise is found in a small pool of people and a credible attribution capability may deter some who are principally motivated by financial, rather than ideological, concerns."

The report reaches five major conclusions, calling for: international cooperation to expand data bases and augment response mechanisms, an increase in the number of trained personnel by the annual production in the first ten years of three to four new Ph.D.s  in relevant disciplines, the development and manufacture of laboratory and field equipment and numerical modeling, senior-level training exercises, and the establishment of review and evaluation groups.  This report received favorable editorials in both the Washington Post and USA Today, and can be read here.

The Senate was the first to act in its consideration of S. 3001, the FY 2009 National Defense Authorization Act.  A section of the accompanying committee report (110-335) entitled "Nonproliferation and verification research and development," the Senate Armed Services Committee explains:

"The committee recommends an increase of $25.0 million for nonproliferation and verification research and development, for increased forensics capabilities, international safeguards technologies, nuclear detonation systems, seismic monitoring, and proliferation detection technologies. The committee continues to be concerned about the continued ability of the United States to effectively monitor and detect clandestine nuclear weapons development activity and to attribute nuclear weapons, improvised nuclear devices, and radiological dispersal devices. Recent collaborative interagency efforts are encouraging but the committee urges the many federal agencies to exercise this developing interagency process for detection and attribution, including the role that the DOE and its laboratories play in the nuclear forensics portion of this process.

"The committee notes that elsewhere in this Act, it has included a provision that would establish a scholarship and fellowship program for nuclear nonproliferation activities. A recently released study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society, which discusses nuclear forensics, highlights the work that needs to be done to develop the global, technical, and operational cooperation needed in the event that a terrorist successfully detonates a nuclear weapon or device or uses a radiological dispersal device."

The subsequent portion of the Senate committee report, referred to above ("elsewhere in this Act") is entitled "Nonproliferation scholarship and fellowship program" and states:

"The committee recommends a provision that would direct the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to establish a nonproliferation scholarship program. The committee is concerned that certain technical areas of expertise critical to nonproliferation programs, such as radio-chemistry, are increasingly difficult for the NNSA and the Department of Energy laboratories to attract and retain. The scholarship program would be available to both undergraduate and graduate students in disciplines to be determined by the Administrator. A student would be required to work as a Federal Government employee or as a laboratory employee for 1 year for each year that the student received support under the program."

On April 30,  Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) introduced H.R 5929, the Nuclear Terrorism Deterrence and Detection Act.  Foster was elected this spring to the seat vacated by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL).  Foster worked at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for 22 years and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics.)   The bill calls for the establishment of a graduate fellowship program in nuclear chemistry, the development of forensics field radiation-measurement equipment, the enhancement of nuclear forensics information, an advisory panel, and a presidential report on cabinet-level planning exercises. Foster offered the provisions of his bill  as an amendment to the House version of the defense authorization bill.  The amendment was considered by the House last night, and was incorporated into the authorization bill without objection.  Following the approval of this amendment, Foster issued a statement explaining: "With the rise of potential nuclear threats from North Korea, Al Qaeda and others, we must put the sharpest minds in science to work for the increased security of our nation.  My legislation will technologically advance our nation's nuclear forensics capabilities, allowing us to track down terrorists, increasing the national security of our country. Our enemies abroad need to know that if they provide nuclear materials to terrorists, we will trace the weapons back to their source, and we will retaliate."