EU Science Hub

Nuclear Security and Forensics for the Media

The news

The JRC has today released details of nuclear forensic work carried out on samples dating back to the early days of the technology's history: from Germany's World War II Programme. At a workshop for journalists held today, 19 March, on nuclear security and forensics at the JRC's Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) in Karlsruhe, Germany, JRC scientists presented the results of nuclear forensic investigations into two samples dating back to the first German nuclear energy project, thought to have begun in 1939.

One sample, a uranium metal cube, was obtained from the Haigerloch Atomic Museum in Baden-Württemberg and originated from the German "Uranverein" nuclear programme under the scientific leadership of 1932 Nobel Prize Winner for Physics, Werner Heisenberg. The second sample, a uranium metal plate, was obtained from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg and is thought to have played a part in the work of Heisenberg's fellow researcher, Karl Wirtz.

At the press workshop at JRC-ITU today, scientists revealed the forensic science, tools and tactics developed and deployed by 'atomic detectives' to overcome these challenges. Nuclear experts explained, for example:

  • How samples of seized illicitly trafficked radioactive materials and 'dust' particles from nuclear facilities are analysed (environmental sampling techniques);
  • How nuclear materials can be 'fingerprinted' and their source determined;
  • How the international community cooperates in the nuclear security field.

Over 30 journalists from across the EU were allowed a glimpse inside the JRC's high security nuclear laboratories for a unique first-hand experience. No other civil laboratory in Europe offers such a broad spectrum of analytical capabilities for nuclear materials as JRC-ITU, where specialists can trace nuclear materials back to the facility in which they were produced, like a bullet back to its gun. These facilities include:

  • forensic laboratories with sophisticated mass spectrometers, fingerprint and DNA facilities;
  • microscopy laboratories, with scanning and transmission electron microscopes, which have been specially modified for operation with contaminated samples;
  • particle-analysis laboratories, which consist of highly sensitive mass spectrometers (SIMS), optical microscopes and a clean rooms for the preparation of particle samples.

During the workshop, presentations were made by Franck Wastin, Nicole Erdmann and Klaus Mayer from JRC-ITU on the work of the JRC in the field of nuclear safeguards and forensics. Maurizio Boella from the European Commission's Directorate-General for Transport and Energy gave a presentation on the role of the European Commission's Nuclear Inspectors

International cooperation on nuclear security

JRC-ITU cooperates in a wide range of instances with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the control of nuclear materials and facilities. The IAEA is charged with verifying that countries live up to their international obligations in the area of nuclear non-proliferation. This includes, for instance, verifying that nuclear materials are not diverted and that nuclear facilities are not used for the development of weapons. The JRC has provided scientific and technical support to this work for over a quarter of a century, with over 100 scientists and technicians (so-called 'Atomic Detectives') working on more than 25 projects.

Three institutes of the JRC are involved in the work on nuclear safeguards in support of the IAEA: the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) in Karlsruhe, Germany; the Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM) in Geel, Belgium and the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen (IPSC) in Ispra, Italy.

During 2009, the JRC will sign two new important Collaboration Agreements on nuclear security with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), USA.


Press release

Illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. New forensic analysis released on Germany's 1940's nuclear programme


Elena González Verdesoto (JRC Press officer Brussels), Tel.: +32 (0)2 299 98 62

Background documents

Atomic detectives - nuclear forensic science

Safe nuclear materials for peaceful purposes only

Illicit Trafficking and Nuclear Forensics

Electron Microscopy Laboratory

Nuclear Safeguards and non-Proliferation: Environmental Sampling Analysis

Nuclear Safety and Security: Safeguards Analytical On-Site Laboratories

Examples of Nuclear Forensic Investigations Performed at ITU