EU Science Hub

JRC: 20 years combating illicit trafficking of nuclear materials

Oct 12 2012

Nuclear forensics is a key component in nuclear security as it provides information for the prosecution of nuclear smugglers and enables the identification of the origin of the intercepted material, thus providing essential information for improving preventive measures.

Since 1992, the JRC has been providing support to national and international authorities through the analysis of intercepted nuclear materials and has nowadays a leading position worldwide in this specialised area.

Today, an event in Karlsruhe has marked the celebration of 20 years providing this nuclear forensics support. It has brought together experts and policy makers from the European Commission, the European External Action Service (EEAS), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as representatives of EU countries and public authorities from the US and Germany. 

Scanning Electron Microscope
©EU, 2012

Nuclear forensics is a highly sophisticated methodology, available only in few specialised laboratories worldwide. Recognised as a centre of excellence by national and international policing bodies, the JRC has developed various methods that allow identification of the origin of intercepted material and the probable intended use. With a team on standby at all times to respond immediately to a seizure, a first analysis can be achieved within 24 hours of a sample arriving at the JRC. Moreover, the JRC maintains an extensive database of commercial nuclear materials, together with information on seized illicit materials, helping the investigators in providing hints on the origin of the material. Since 1992, the JRC has examined seized nuclear material in more than 40 cases, providing support to the competent authorities in Member States and beyond. Fighting against illicit trafficking of nuclear materials calls for strengthened international co-operation and improved measures for prevention, detection and response. Building on longstanding cooperation with IAEA in the field of safeguards and non proliferation, the JRC enhanced this cooperation with its nuclear forensics support.

The JRC also co-chairs the Nuclear Smuggling International Technical Working Group (ITWG) together with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This working group brings together scientists, experts, law enforcement personnel and nuclear security administrators from all over the world in order to develop methodologies and establish guidelines for nuclear forensic investigations.


Transmission electron microscope with glove box for the handling of radioactive samples
©EU, 2012

Furthermore, the JRC has been implementing a number of cooperative projects in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and in South East Asia in order to enhance their nuclear forensics capabilities. Trained staff and skilled experts are essential for an appropriate handling of illicit incidents involving nuclear or other radioactive materials. Therefore, training and knowledge transfer are important elements for capacity building in nuclear security. To this end, the JRC, in cooperation with other Commission services, is currently setting up a European Nuclear Security Training Centre (EUSECTRA) that includes nuclear forensics in the training programme.

More information about the nuclear forensic activities can be found on the JRC-ITU webpage.