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Identification of High Confidence Nuclear Forensics Signatures for the Development of a National Nuclear Forensics Library


The international application of nuclear forensics, including the development of national nuclear forensics libraries, is essential to combat the transboundary movement of nuclear and other radioactive material out of regulatory control. A national nuclear forensics library is an authoritative record consisting of databases and potentially sample archives of nuclear and other radioactive material produced in, used or stored in a State. Research and development is necessary in order to address the science of nuclear forensic signatures to provide peer reviewed and validated signatures across the nuclear fuel cycle and through the manufacture of radioactive sources. This CRP will address the data requirements of a national nuclear forensics library for each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle (as determined by IAEA experts) and for the manufacture of radioactive sources, as well as promote research into novel signatures that are indicative of nuclear processing and important to high confidence nuclear forensics interpretation (eg. application of high precision, high abundance sensitivity mass spectrometry; stable isotope systematics; optimized use of radiogenic isotopes and rare earth trace elements). Of interest are resolving signatures imparted naturally as uranium is mined from those signatures that are introduced as a result ofproduction and manufacturing processes during milling, isotopic enrichment, fuel manufacture and reactor operations. A fundament question to be addressed by this CRP is how nuclear forensics signatures are imparted and how they persist. The results from this CRP will be used to provide technical guidance to States for the development of national nuclear forensics libraries, including the identification of high priority nuclear forensics signatures - related to material history - to be included.

Background Situation Analysis

The objective of nuclear forensics as a nuclear security technical capability is to categorize and characterize nuclear or other radioactive material out of regulatory control to provide information on its history and origin. Episodes of illicit trafficking continue to be reported to the IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database including incidents of the trafficking of highly enriched uranium in 2010 and 2011. For this reason nuclear forensics is not a contingency plan but rather provides information that is essential for preventing, detecting and responding to criminal and unauthorized acts involving these materials.

Nuclear forensics is a comparative discipline where unknown samples are compared against known samples - where the history and origin are known - to determine if there are similarities and likeness. While the analysis of nuclear and other radioactive materials has increasingly become more sophisticated, the ability to reliably interpret these measurements depends upon a State’s capacity to develop the appropriate means to unequivocally compare the analytical results of questioned samples relative to a nuclear forensics library of validated known data and / or samples.

In order to establish these national nuclear forensics libraries, the IAEA is working with States to raise awareness and provide guidance on the technical requirements bearing on the development of the libraries. This approach was endorsed at the 2010 General Conference Resolution on Nuclear Security (GC-54/RES/8). The technical guidance has benefitted from the sharing of Member States experience with organizing data from past and current production of nuclear and other radioactive materials. As well, national experience with safeguards arrangements and inventories of "batches" of nuclear materials can provide a base for building national nuclear forensics libraries. The need to identify and prioritize nuclear forensics signatures for use in nuclear forensics libraries was a key outcome at IAEA expert consultancies convened in November 2010 and March 2011.

As the development of national nuclear forensics libraries is at its inception, further work is needed to i) identify the most important signatures for inclusion at each stage in the nuclear fuel cycle and including radioactive material, ii) tie these fuel cycle signatures to processes used in their production and manufacture, and iii) organize these signatures such that the data may be collected from archives or measurements. Novel nuclear forensics signatures will also be developed and validated through peer review. Taken together, this research programme requires nuclear fuel cycle expertise and research to determine robust and persistent signatures incorporated in the material and appropriate methods of analysis and prediction.

Nuclear Component

This CRP involves the identification of key forensics signatures inherent to nuclear and other radioactive materials at each of the different phases of the nuclear fuel cycle for inclusion in national nuclear forensics libraries.

CRP Overall Objective

The goal of the CRP is to develop validated nuclear forensics isotopic, chemical and physical signatures corresponding to stages of the nuclear fuel cycle (e.g., uranium ore mining, milling, conversion to UF6, nuclear fuel manufacture, reactor operations, reprocessing and radioactive source production) that enable high confidence comparative analysis between sample “unknowns” and “knowns” using a national nuclear forensics library.

Specific Research Objectives

Using scientific peer review, identify and prioritize nuclear forensic signatures associated with the origin and process history of the nuclear fuel cycle for the inclusion in national nuclear forensics libraries. Use stages of the nuclear fuel cycle identified by IAEA experts to understand persistent isotopic, chemical and physical signatures that are important to i) allow nuclear forensics cases to be compared directly, ii) potentially link suspects to materials, places and events iii) provide information on the origin and history of nuclear and radioactive materials to address potential nuclear security vulnerabilities, and iv) allow all States to make high confidence statements regarding the security of nuclear and other radioactive material for which they have responsibility.

Expected Research Outputs

Technical guidance for States including the identified key isotopic, chemical and physical signatures - to address process history, as well as comparative and predictive signatures - and the analytical and predictive methodologies for high confidence interpretations to establish robust and comprehensive national nuclear forensics libraries.

CRP Expected Research Outcomes

States will develop and implement national nuclear forensics libraries under their control that utilize validated and priority isotopic, chemical and physical signatures for high confidence interpretation as part of the prevention of and response to incidents involving nuclear or other radioactive materials out of regulatory control.