Science & Tech

U.S. lagging in ability to trace nuclear materials

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Cold War nuclear forensic skills being lost

The United States must renew its resources in tracing unidentified
nuclear materials, specialists say.

Michael May, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and the head of
a panel of nuclear forensic experts studying the issue, said at today’s session of the AAAS annual meeting in Boston that the United States is on the verge of losing its expertise in tracing nuclear materials — especially those smuggled on the black market.

Sophisticated technology used to analyze and trace nuclear samples — a
process known as nuclear forensics — is not being passed on to younger
scientists, May said. He pointed out that presently available trained
personnel are highly skilled, but are getting old. Up to half of the
35 to 50 scientists working in nuclear forensics at the U.S.
Department of Energy’s laboratories are expected to retire in 10 to 15
years, but university programs in radio chemistry are dwindling, he

Nuclear forensics was developed during the Cold War but is “just as
important now, with concerns about potential terrorist use of nuclear
materials in bombs or radiological devices,” according to May.

In addition to an outline on the current status of the nuclear forensics
infrastructure, the report also listed recommendations, such as
international cooperation on the development of a nuclear-materials
database and upgrades of equipment in U.S. laboratories.