Needed: A Comprehensive Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act

There are two scenarios at the core of the U.S. Government’s nuclear terrorism concerns – the aftermath of a nuclear detonation; and the interdiction of smuggled nuclear weapons or material.

The first scenario begins with a large explosion in Los Angeles that is suspected to be the result of a nuclear detonation. Although not yet confirmed, the magnitude of the damage and the resulting number of casualties suggest that it was a nuclear event. The public is demanding answers and wants the nation’s commander in chief to take decisive action to respond to the apparent attack. The President directs his advisors to quickly determine who or what group perpetrated the attack and to develop options for retaliation. Unfortunately, reaching high-confidence conclusions could take several months or longer.

The second scenario involves two persons attempting to cross into Georgia at a remote border location in that former Soviet Republic. After noticing the nervous behavior of the two “suspect individuals,” a border guard initiates a search of their persons as well as the vehicle – in which he identifies possible radioactive material. Subsequent technical analysis of the material confirms the finding of highly enriched uranium suitable for use in a nuclear weapon.

These scenarios are consistent with the 1,080 real-life incidents of illicit trafficking and/or unauthorized possession of radiological or nuclear materials that had been reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as of 2006. Although investigations were launched in an attempt to identify the source of the materials, as well as those responsible for providing or stealing it, full accounting was never achieved in many of the cases that were investigated.

The Proliferation of Horror 

The United States, and the international community at large, are facing a growing threat posed by nuclear terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Terrorist groups have openly stated their intentions to acquire and use nuclear weapons. Iran continues to defy the world in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and some states already in possession of nuclear weapons represent security risks because of their own political instability. The response to this growing threat must be multi-pronged, sustained, and adaptable to the changing environment.

In light of the evolving nuclear threat, the United States has devised a layered strategy to deter and prevent nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies, and to protect its economic and political interests throughout the world. At the top level, that strategy is composed of the following elements:

(a) Increased intelligence collection and analysis – focused primarily on networks, people, and materials;

(b) Nuclear threat reduction – to reduce and/or secure nuclear weapons stockpiles and materials;

(c) Focused interdiction through the Proliferation Security Initiative – to deny access not only to nuclear materials and weapons but also to the expertise needed to further nuclear ambitions;

(d) A “tiered” strategy – to prevent nuclear weapons and/or materials from being smuggled into and used against the United States;

(e) Strengthened nuclear forensics capabilities – to support attribution (i.e.,entification of the probable source) and deterrence;

(f) Enhanced response and recovery capabilities – to minimize casualties, should prevention fail; and

(g) Shared practices and capabilities – as well as information exchange, through the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), to enhance international efforts to respond to the nuclear threat.

Nuclear Forensics, Attribution, and a Vacant Chair 

This article focuses on one element of the overall U.S. strategy to combat the nuclear threat – nuclear forensics and attribution, which is also an element of the GICNT.

Several months ago (16 February) President Obama signed H.R. 730, the “Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act,” which seeks, among other things, “to strengthen efforts in the Department of Homeland Security to develop nuclear forensics capabilities to permit attribution of the source of nuclear material, and for other purposes.” Major provisions of the act focus on the need for the United States to pursue expanded international agreements for forensics cooperation and to further outline the responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) in the areas of nuclear forensics and attribution.

The President and the U.S. Congress should be commended for taking this forward-looking step to emphasize the importance of nuclear forensics and attribution – but there are still a number of relevant questions that must be asked before the nation can take comfort in possessing the forensics capabilities needed both to achieve its attribution goals and answer the questions mentioned above. More specifically: (1) Who or what group is responsible; (2) How confident is the United States in the information it now possesses; and/or (3) How long will it take to obtain accurate information? Here it should also be noted that the position of DNDO Director, the organization and individual assigned the daunting responsibilities described under H.R. 730, is still vacant more than 16 months after the new Administration came into office.

Before addressing the challenges confronting the nuclear forensics and attribution community (including government policy advisors), it is worth reviewing some other questions that would be raised in the two most likely scenarios previously mentioned.

Scenario 1 – Aftermath of a nuclear detonation: Who was responsible for the attack? Who can be ruled out? Who will cooperate? What information do U.S. officials now have, and what additional information is needed? How long will it take to assemble the necessary evidence to form a high-confidence determination of attribution? How do DNDO and its interagency partners balance the forensics and attribution efforts with the similarly important need for consequence-management activities? Are other attacks imminent? Who is in charge of the attribution effort? What are the retaliatory options?

Scenario 2 – Interdiction of a smuggled nuclear weapon or nuclear materials: What is the source of the material or weapon? Can any potential sources be dismissed? Is there another weapon and/or more material in the pipeline? Who will cooperate in the investigation? Who will gain the access to weapon design or material samples that would be needed to carry out a reliable forensics analysis? Who is in charge of the U.S. investigation – a law-enforcement agency or the intelligence community? How long will it take to determine the source?

As those questions suggest, each of the potential scenarios mentioned not only raises some serious challenges but also involves varying levels of urgency and complexity – depending on the actual case particulars. To date, in the cases of interdiction of smuggled nuclear material, the report card is mixed – at best. In some cases, there has been a reasonable degree of cooperation with international partners, but the outcome has not always been definitive, particularly regarding the actual source of the material. In other cases, there has been less cooperation, leaving the intelligence community with more questions than answers. Moreover, the sense of urgency associated with many but not all of these cases has often been assessed as lacking in vigor – because at least some of those involved seem to believe that such smuggling cases do not pose an immediate terrorist threat.

For these and other reasons, the major challenges confronting U.S. and international officials charged with forensics and attribution responsibilities boil down to: (a) information sharing between and among U.S. agencies, and with international partners; (b) U.S. interagency cooperation (and/or the lack thereof) – which is not a surprising problem, considering the number of senior officials and varying portfolios involved – the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); (c) U.S. and international technical capabilities and standards; (d) U.S. nuclear forensics expertise; and (e) the formidable legislative hurdles that must be cleared.

Although the capability to achieve a rapid, high-confidence characterization of pre-detonation weapon designs or materials (and/or post-event radioactive debris) is the foundation of technical nuclear forensics, the ability to correlate the technical analysis with known material characteristics is the linchpin needed to connect forensics to attribution. The challenge facing the U.S. forensics and attribution community – and, in turn, national leaders – is therefore: (1) to determine the process needed to quickly share nuclear material characteristics throughout the international community either in the aftermath of a detonation or following the interdiction of nuclear materials; and/or (2) to develop and use the mechanisms needed to create a library of characterized material prior to a detonation or interdiction.

There are several major policy, technical, and operational issues associated with both of these options. The first hurdle requires reaching a policy determination that allows the United States to share, with other nations, information about the characteristics of its weapon-related nuclear materials as a necessary first step in showing good faith with international partners that this is a measure needed to combat nuclear terrorism. Because some in the U.S. government worry that sharing such detailed information will allow other nations to “reverse engineer” U.S. nuclear weapon designs, material characteristics probably cannot be shared in advance of an actual event. Absent an agreement to develop a materials library in advance of an event, though, the community will be left with the only other option available – namely, to share information after the event while simultaneously conducting forensics analysis of the pre- or post-detonation material. That option, of course, would lengthen the critical timeline needed to make an accurate determination of attribution.

The second major hurdle associated with the pre-versus post-detonation options involves the technical issues associated with consistencies of the laboratory processes used to develop material characterizations. The forensics community needs to develop validated international standards that guide the characterization process used to provide the confidence needed to correlate data in the materials library with the characteristics of the materials involved in the specific case at hand. A critical aspect of the attribution process would be to rule out, as quickly as possible, the identity of the nation or organization whose weapons or materials may have been involved. The development and use of standardized laboratory processes would contribute significantly to completion of this step.

Finally, the operational procedures for sample collection, dissemination, and analysis must be codified, exercised, and validated with international partners to ensure that, in the wake of a crisis, attribution is not encumbered by “process fouls” that challenge the chain of custody involved in a reliable technical nuclear forensics laboratory analysis.

Clear Evidence of Fumbled Opportunities 

Another factor to consider is that, while the purpose of H.R. 730 is to strengthen the forensics and attribution efforts of DHS, the U.S. capability to conduct the full range of forensics and attribution responsibilities is shared by and among numerous departments and agencies, and therefore demands that the activities involved in conducting a forensics analysis be carried out both seamlessly and efficiently.

To date, unfortunately, the record of cooperation on nuclear smuggling cases is mixed, at best, and there is clear evidence of competition among agencies rather than the cooperation needed to drive the work being carried out to a satisfactory conclusion. Moreover, there are a number of recorded cases in which at least some elements of the forensics community have been cut out of the information flow altogether.

In short, to “get it right,” there must be standardized processes in place to share information and analyses between and among the numerous intelligence, law-enforcement, and technical forensics communities involved. The demands for well prosecuted forensics and attribution responsibilities in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation will obviously far exceed those associated with “mere” smuggling cases. The United States and the world cannot afford to have competition substituted for cooperation under such crisis conditions.

U.S. and International Technical Capabilities and Standards The forensics community also requires standardized laboratory capabilities to characterize the properties of special nuclear materials. Such capabilities must yield consistently reliable and repeatable material analyses regardless of the laboratory used. The United States strives for consistency across the technical and law enforcement communities in order to have validated analytical results that can be used for prosecution purposes as and when appropriate.

Here it should be noted that some U.S. authorities have argued that the nation’s laboratories could and should be used by partner nations in order to develop high-confidence forensics analyses. It seems very unlikely, though, that a consensus could be reached to use U.S. facilities as the gold standard. For that reason alone, the United States should plan to allow the use of foreign laboratories to conduct forensics analyses of samples collected outside the United States. More specifically, U.S. forensics officials should make use of an international forum such as the GICNT to seek standardized forensics analytical standards and processes. In addition, the United States should assess and modernize its own forensics infrastructure to maintain state-of-the-art facilities and analytical capabilities – and should urge its international partners to do likewise.

Earlier this year, President Obama announced that he will ask Congress to approve a significant increase in the fiscal year 2011 NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) budget request to begin upgrading that agency’s deteriorating infrastructure. Since the end of the Cold War, the nuclear weapons complex overseen by NNSA has suffered from numerous budgetary pressures as well as personnel losses. Because of continuing reductions in the U.S./Russian nuclear stockpiles, and the end of nuclear testing, the infrastructure began to deteriorate – and a number of nuclear experts either left the laboratories on their own volition or were terminated.

The Downward Slope Changes into a Spiral 

It is true that the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons has evolved – downward, usually – because the size of the nuclear threat is no longer as great as it was during the Cold War, but the need for nuclear expertise has not diminished one iota. However, NNSA budget cuts have had an unwitting impact on the same professional community that the nation relies on to assess foreign nuclear weapons programs, evaluate terrorist-improvised nuclear weapons designs, explore innovative radiation-detection concepts, conduct forensics analyses of nuclear samples, and much more. The erosion of that expertise has not only had a direct impact on all of these mission areas but has also caused a dec

Vayl S. Oxford

Vayl S. Oxford is the national security executive policy advisor at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Before joining PNNL, he spent a short time in private industry after 35 years of public service. His career highlights include serving at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from October 2003 to January 2009, where he held the positions of policy advisor to the undersecretary of science and technology, acting director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the first director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. Before DHS, he served as the director for counterproliferation at the National Security Council and chaired the interagency working group for Operation Iraqi Freedom. From 1987 to January 2002, he held several positions within the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and its predecessor organizations (Defense Special Weapons Agency, Defense Nuclear Agency). He also held several positions in the U.S. Air Force.



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