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Nuclear forensics

April 24, 2008
By FRANK SHATZ
According to national security experts, the most conceivable major threat facing the United States is the possibility that al Qaeda-linked terrorists would get hold of a nuclear bomb and detonate it in an urban area or at a strategic location in our country.

Currently, only a handful of countries do possess bomb-grade nuclear fuel or the know-how to assemble an explosive nuclear device. So the only way terrorists would be able to obtain bomb-making material is if it were intentionally provided to them by a nuclear power or measures to secure nuclear stockpiles prove inadequate.

It is recognized that in spite of strenuous efforts to secure our borders against infiltration by terrorists and their attempts to smuggle bomb-grade nuclear material into our country, there is no fault-proof way to stop suicidal terrorists from detonating a nuclear device. Not only would it be hard to prove the true identity of the perpetrators, but should their identity be confirmed, most probably they would belong to a group without a “return address.”

Experts believe that the most rational policy to prevent terrorists from acquiring a nuclear bomb is to issue a warning to countries that, should a nuclear device be detonated on the soil of the United States, our government would hold responsible the country from which the nuclear fuel originated.

Making this warning credible, you have to be able to trace the bomb-grade nuclear fuel to its source.

According to recent scientific reports, there is now a new method to ascertain with great precision the origin of any detonated nuclear bomb. Nuclear forensics evidence left in the debris can reveal the exact composition of the bomb and pinpoint the country from which the nuclear fuel used in the bomb originated.

The ability to trace the origins of the bomb to its nuclear components is the key to devising a national security policy that would update the doctrine of “mutually assured nuclear destruction” which was in effect during the Cold War.

In the forefront of research on nuclear forensics is the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It is a facility which has 8,600 employees and a budget of more than $1.5 billion and is led by George H. Miller.

He received his bachelor’s with high honors in physics in 1967, his master’s in physics in 1969 and his doctorate in physics in 1972, all from the College of William & Mary. He is a nuclear weapons and national security expert who specialized in nuclear stockpile surveillance and arms control. During his 34 years at the University of California, Miller has served as a leader in various critical phases of the homeland security effort.

Although the National Laboratory is first of all responsible for the research and development of the United States nuclear arsenal, nevertheless, the great bulk of its work is unclassified. Its scientific and technological research is aimed primarily at finding solutions to national security problems, and the results are often utilized for civilian purposes as well. It was the National Laboratory that developed many of the technologies that made the human genome project possible.

No doubt, the pioneering nuclear forensics research taking place at the National Laboratory under Miller’s leadership is designed to serve important military purposes. But national security experts believe that its greatest value will be derived from using the science as a potent deterrent against nuclear proliferation.

No country, it is argued, would risk making bomb-grade nuclear fuel available to terrorists knowing that the bomb could be traced to its source and that retaliation would be devastating.

Academicians, particularly national security and foreign policy experts around the country, including at William & Mary, are paying close attention to the results of the advances being made in the science of nuclear forensics. They are deeply involved in analyzing how the ability to trace the origins of a nuclear bomb detonated by terrorists would or should alter our national security policy.

Nuclear forensics is seen as emerging as one of the best tools to deter a nuclear power from providing assistance to non-state actors. Instead of worrying about a nuclear attack by missiles and bombers, preventing nuclear proliferation has become the new mantra.

Thus William & Mary, which since the establishment of the Reves Center for International Studies in 1987 has earned strong credentials in the field of international studies, is in the forefront of academic establishments that are analyzing national security policy options to make our country safer and the world a more peaceful place.

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Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from

The Virginia Gazette.

 
 

 

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