Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nuclear Forensics: Special Material Unit

Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) recently wrote an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal regarding the need to increase U.S. nuclear forensics capabilities. To pare down his piece, he argues:

The U.S. has long deterred a nuclear attack by states, by clearly and credibly threatening devastating retaliation. Now is the time for a new type of deterrence: We must make clear in advance that we will hold accountable any country that contributes to a terrorist nuclear attack, whether by directly aiding would-be nuclear terrorists or willfully neglecting its responsibility to secure the nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear material within its borders. Deterrence cannot rest on words alone. It must be backed up by capabilities. …

Any country today that aids a would-be nuclear terrorist, through action or neglect, has to be concerned about getting caught. But we can and must do more to improve our ability in this area, and to make our ability to trace the source of a nuclear explosion widely known. We need more nuclear forensics research, more scientists to analyze nuclear samples, and an assured ability -- using our own aircraft or those of cooperating states -- to quickly collect nuclear debris from the site of any attack, in this country or around the world. …

This new form of deterrence must add to, not replace, other efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism. We must devote far more dollars and people to working with Russia and other countries to secure and reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials and to remove nuclear weapons-usable materials from as many sites as possible. The president must make this effort his or her personal priority. Deterrence based on strong nuclear forensics is a critical tool to help prevent nuclear terrorism. To prevent a nuclear 9/11, we must use every tool we have.

Some critics point out, however, that a heavy reliance on nuclear forensics could potentially provide an incentive for a third party to use stolen material to instigate a mistaken retaliatory attack between two other parties. They also note that most of the special nuclear material in the world is in the hands of the U.S. and its allies, Russia, or China, against whom the U.S. is unlikely to retaliate.

Others still point out that while nuclear forensics could help determine some very basic information about bomb design and possibly the age of fissile material used (thereby helping to eliminate what the bomb wasn't), it’s questionable whether or not that information would be enough to determine the unique “fingerprint” of the nuclear weapon and provide a link to the terrorists that detonated it. But without being able to reliably and credibly determine those “fingerprints,” deterrence through threatened retaliation goes out the window.

As Robert Nelson, Senior Scientist of the Union of Concerned Scientists rightfully notes, the strategy of attempting to ascertain the culprit using nuclear forensics “is similar to trying to detect fissile material hidden in one of the 11 million cargo containers entering US ports every year: it's a good idea to try, but [it] gives a false sense of security because it is unlikely to ever be very effective. The only realistic strategy is to secure the material at the source.”

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