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Bolstering Nuclear Forensics to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism -The Fifth Anniversary of the Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act

Five years ago, President Obama signed into law an important piece of homeland security legislation designed to help protect our Nation against the threat of nuclear terrorism. The Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act (NFAA) assigned to the Department of Homeland Security key nuclear forensics responsibilities and authorized the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center within DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).

The law states, “The threat of a nuclear terrorist attack on American interests…is one of the most serious threats to… national security.”  Confronted with this possibility, U. S. policy is to hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or use nuclear weapons.

In the face of potential nuclear threats, we need to have the capability to determine who is responsible for such acts. Nuclear forensics enables us to trace nuclear materials and devices back to their place of origin.  In smuggling cases, nuclear forensics can aid in the prosecution of perpetrators, help close down smuggling networks, and identify potential nuclear security deficiencies that need to be addressed.  In the case of attempted or actual acts of nuclear terrorism, scientific evidence supports the determination of those responsible which would guide U.S. actions in response. 

Since the enactment of NFAA, DHS has worked with the FBI, the Departments of Defense, Energy, and State, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to advance the national capabilities. DNDO supports multiagency forensics exercises that include state and local partners and we also participate in exercises with the intelligence community to plan and synchronize intelligence, law enforcement, and technical forensics information into a robust attribution process.

The NFAA also highlights the importance of increased international collaboration in nuclear forensics to ensure the United States and its partners are prepared for a nuclear event overseas.  Since the Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, where nuclear forensics and detection were highlighted as ongoing priorities, we have seen international collaborations expanded and enhanced. 

DNDO continues to work to advance technical capabilities to perform nuclear forensics on smuggled materials as well. DNDO has led the development of technology that can replicate how foreign nations produce nuclear materials. This allows us to predict the forensic signatures without having samples of those materials and is a significant advancement in our ability to trace nuclear materials back to their origin.

Finally, DNDO is ensuring we have the scientific talent required for nuclear forensics.  The NFAA-mandated National Nuclear Forensics Expertise Development Program is designed to cultivate and sustain the expertise required to execute our mission and has significantly revitalized the pipeline, through its support to students and academic institutions, which have become increasingly involved with the nuclear forensics field over the last five years.      

The NFAA has been instrumental for DNDO, where we remain singularly focused on preventing nuclear terrorism. Along with our partners, we remain vigilant in our efforts to protect the Nation against this threat.

Last Updated: 02/05/2021
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