Joint Research Centre - European Commission

The European Commission's in-house science service
European Commission

Nuclear Forensics Case Analysis

Nuclear Forensics Case Analysis© EU

Need for more nuclear forensics


More scientists, techniques and collaborations are needed to characterise nuclear materials, and so deterring illicit trafficking and terrorism, according to a JRC article published in today's Nature edition.

Ten to 15 times per year officials detect unlawful nuclear materials by measuring radiation directly or acting on tip-offs from police or intelligence work. Uranium and plutonium are most worrying because they do not only pose a radiological hazard, but may also point to nuclear terrorism or proliferation. Whenever a sample is intercepted, agencies want to know for example where and when the material was produced, what it was intended for and which laws had been broken?

Nuclear-forensic scientists try to provide the answers as the chemical and physical signatures of a radioactive material sheds light on its origin and history such as the location where it was mined and the production date and place.

There are still, however, many challenges to be faced in nuclear forensics. As the chemical and physical signatures vary through the nuclear cycle – for instance, from uranium ore, natural uranium, over weapons-usable highly enriched uranium to spent nuclear fuel and separated plutonium – analysis methods must be tailored to the material and signature under investigation. In addition, new methods need to be validated, the robustness of some signatures has to be demonstrated and corroboration of several interpretational techniques is still justified.

Yet, skilled radiochemists and nuclear physicists and engineers have become a rarity. Sophisticated laboratories alone are not enough for the effective deterrence of illicit trafficking and nuclear terrorism. Capacity building, through opportunities for specialised nuclear scientists and harmonised and coordinated training programmes worldwide, is key to ensuring nuclear security around the globe.