The Evolving Missions of Technical Nuclear Forensics

July 3, 2021 Topic: Nuclear War Region: Americas Tags: NuclearWarTechnologyPolicyNuclear Attack

The Evolving Missions of Technical Nuclear Forensics

First developed for nuclear test monitoring and treaty verification purposes during the Cold War, modern nuclear forensic capabilities are now used to determine the provenance of nuclear materials found outside of regulatory control, such as those seized from nuclear smugglers.


Advanced nuclear forensic capabilities may also help strengthen international norms by fostering transparency in the aftermath of a nuclear facility accident or non-catastrophic nuclear weapon mishap. Particularly among authoritarian regimes that are sensitive to their international reputation, there are often incentives to be less than forthcoming about the extent or even the occurrence of a nuclear incident. The ability to resolve ambiguities about and assign responsibility for such events may thus encourage greater openness following an accident, as well as motivate investments in precautions to prevent mishaps from occurring to begin with. 

The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 is instructive in this regard. Fewer than two days after the reactor accident, high levels of radiation were detected on the shoes of workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, some 680 miles away. Having determined that the radiation was not the result of a domestic nuclear accident, Swedish diplomats contacted Soviet officials and signaled their intention to file a report with the IAEA. This in turn forced the Soviet Union to admit to the world that a serious nuclear event had occurred. While the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster would have made it impossible to deny for long, forensic capabilities can contribute substantially to public knowledge about less obvious nuclear incidents. 


In one such example in September 2017, the IMS detected a significant, unattributed release of the radioisotope Ruthenium-106 across central and eastern Europe and Asia. Based on weather patterns, suspicion immediately fell on Russia as the source of the release. A subsequent NNSA analysis provided to France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) implicated Russia with a high probability, and IRSN’s independent analysis came to the same conclusion. In June 2020, a group of European scientists released a study purporting to demonstrate “irrefutable proof” that Russia’s Mayak nuclear facility was the source of the release, which reportedly occurred in the course of nuclear waste reprocessing. Nonetheless, Russia steadfastly denies responsibility for the incident to this day. 

Almost two years after the Ruthenium -106 release, an event known as the “Skyfall” incident occurred involving an explosion near Nenoksa, Russia, in August 2019. The United States later asserted the blast was caused by a nuclear reactor accident during the recovery of a Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile, which lay on the floor of the White Sea near a major population center since a failed 2018 missile test. Russia’s response to international inquiries about the incident was characteristically opaque and contradictory, and four nearby radiation sensor sites conveniently went offline following the explosion, suggesting an attempt at concealment. Although Russia held funerals for five technical personnel from its nuclear weapons laboratory killed in the incident, the Kremlin has to date not acknowledged the nature or seriousness of the accident.

In instances where the non-cooperation of a foreign government prevents a full investigation into nuclear accidents and mishaps, the ability to perform scientific analysis—often far from the event site—that is broadly accepted by the international community may decrease the frequency of cover-ups or other attempts at obfuscation. The wish to avoid national embarrassment may in turn encourage greater international cooperation in the realm of nuclear safety and security, such as the exchange of best practices with other nuclear states. Additionally, the accountability that forensic capabilities may facilitate could discourage irresponsible behaviors among the nuclear powers, such as Russia’s development of a nuclear-powered cruise missile that one senior U.S. official has described as a “flying Chernobyl.”

FOR NUCLEAR forensic capabilities to influence foreign state behavior more significantly, from eschewing support for would-be nuclear terrorists to improving the safety of nuclear operations, the United States must proceed along two parallel paths. The first involves continued investments in the scientific and technical infrastructure that enables forensic analysis at the national laboratories. The second concerns the conscious advertising of U.S. forensic capabilities to foreign audiences and the cultivation of broad international acceptance of these tools’ scientific integrity. Like the twin necessity of operational capability and political resolve to reinforce the credibility of traditional nuclear deterrence, these two requirements are the cornerstones of credibility where the United States’ nuclear forensics tools are concerned.

National Investments in Nuclear Forensics. In addition to the physical infrastructure needed to perform nuclear forensic analysis at the national laboratories, perhaps the most important enablers of the forensics mission are its scientific and operational personnel. Among the chief findings of a 2010 National Academies of Science study on nuclear forensics was that the men and women of the forensics workforce are “too few and are spread too thinly.” Absent dedicated funding and promising career prospects in the realm of nuclear forensics, these individuals will gravitate toward other nuclear security missions, depriving forensics of critical technical talent. This recognition has motivated a concerted U.S. government effort to recapitalize the nuclear forensics workforce and ensure that the next generation of scientists will be attracted to the forensics mission. Although these steps are promising, national laboratory leaders and members of Congress must emphasize the need for the full range of nuclear incident response personnel, including scientists trained in nuclear forensics, with the same vehemence that they advocate for skilled nuclear weapon designers and others who perform stockpile-related missions.

Additionally, nuclear forensics requires significant national investments in scientific disciplines such as trace particle analysis and particle morphology analysis to allow the United States to determine, for example, the enrichment processes that produced the nuclear material used in a terrorist nuclear device. Although a hostile state may attempt to obfuscate its responsibility for the malicious use of nuclear material, doing so requires scientific capabilities resident only in a small handful of advanced states. Sophisticated nuclear forensic tools thus raise the bar for states that might otherwise attempt to use these materials in a hostile manner and escape recrimination. Although NNSA has more than doubled its funding for nuclear forensics over the last two fiscal years, continued interagency support will be necessary to achieve the full promise of these capabilities.

Finally, the United States must establish scientific data collection methodologies that are internationally agreed upon before a nuclear incident to allow for rapid consensus on the scientific ground truth when a crisis occurs. This will require internationally accepted data authentication processes that have been practiced repeatedly and subjected to independent scrutiny—to the extent the protection of U.S. “sources and methods” will allow. Because only a few advanced countries possess these capabilities, U.S. scientific conclusions following a nuclear incident may either be poorly understood or subject to claims that the outputs are inconclusive. (An additional consideration is that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [npt] prohibits the recognized nuclear weapons states from sharing nuclear weapon-related information with non-nuclear weapons states and forbids the latter from receiving such information; the npt may thus prevent international scrutiny of collected data and analysis that could allow the extrapolation of nuclear weapon design information.) Consequently, the United States and its partners should educate the broader global scientific community on many of these processes and methodologies, enabling them to be repeated by others and thus foster confidence in U.S. scientific assertions following a nuclear incident. Of particular value are scientists from neutral and non-aligned countries, whose unbiased assessments following a nuclear event would be particularly valuable in buttressing U.S. conclusions and in turn adding legitimacy to the United States’ response.

Nuclear Forensics in U.S. Strategic Messaging. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 dark comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, much of the plot centers around the untimely revelation of a Soviet “Doomsday Machine” designed to trigger an automatic nuclear counterstrike if the United States undertook a nuclear attack. Yet, for the system to deter such aggression, the United States would have to be aware of its existence, and in the film this notification had not yet occurred. Dr. Strangelove exclaims to the Soviet ambassador, “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!” In keeping with this logic, the United States is now consciously telegraphing the existence of its sophisticated and continually improving nuclear forensic capabilities—and articulating the repercussions of facilitating nuclear terrorism. Notably, the 2018 National Strategy for Countering WMD Terrorism states that, “The expectation that the United States can reliably attribute support for WMD terrorism, coupled with clarity about the consequences of doing so, will help dissuade hostile governments and individuals from complicity in mass murder” (emphasis added). 

While foreign perceptions of the United States’ existing forensic capabilities are probably sufficient to discourage state support for nuclear terrorism even now, nothing should be left to chance. Repeated demonstrations of progress in refining nuclear forensic competencies are necessary, as is repetition of the link between adversary support for terrorists and U.S. retaliation. Yet, nuclear terrorism is not the only domain where strategic messaging on forensic tools is advisable. The United States, together with its allies and the IAEA, can affect significant improvements in global nuclear safety and security by combining technical forensic capabilities with a concerted campaign to highlight and assign blame for nuclear incidents and accidents. Even if such pressure does not succeed in influencing the most recalcitrant states’ behavior, it may nonetheless help shape the conduct of other countries, particularly rising nuclear powers eager to be recognized as responsible stewards of nuclear technology.