Scientists must improve cooperation to stop nuclear terrorism, experts urge

While methods of identifying those to blame for nuclear attacks are advanced, better cooperation between scientists of different disciplines is needed.

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THE HAGUE // Forensics examination techniques into how to investigate nuclear disasters need to be improved, experts told the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague.

While methods of identifying those to blame for nuclear attacks are advanced, better cooperation between scientists of different disciplines is needed, said Ed van Zalen, the programme manager in chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives at the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI).

“I think the biggest threat nowadays is one of mass destruction,” he said on Monday. “Forensic science is the technical ability to reconstruct events and identify perpetrators and terrorists. So there should be cooperation not only within nuclear science but also with forensics science.”

Although a dirty bomb – in which radioactive material is combined with conventional explosives – has never been used, Mr van Zalen said there was still a threat.

“Nobody thought 9/11 would happen and this is the same thing with nuclear material,” he said. “It’s the smuggling of plutonium, uranium and radiological elements, as we see that radiological materials are very useful to make dirty bombs.

“What we have seen in past decades is that since 1995 there have been huge developments in nuclear forensics in identifying nuclear materials, but no developments in forensic methods for identifying perpetrators.

“What we’ve seen in this period is that there is a need for this type of cooperation in such a way that the entire community is involved.”

Mr van Zalen was speaking at the launch of the Nuclear Security Summit 2014 Gift Basket, a project to support international forensic standards in the case of a nuclear security threat.

The programme, entitled Innovation Pathway 2014-2019, Forensics in Nuclear Security, aims to provide a platform for experts to exchange expertise, a compendium for nuclear forensics investigations and an education, training and exercise curriculum.

“The idea was approved by NSS members,” said Mr van Zalen. “We presented the paper at the Seoul summit in 2012 and the ideas related to this specific paper were about bringing nuclear science and forensic science together because they’re way apart from each other.”

The initiative has received interest from international organisations in more than 30 countries, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Interpol.

“There is a need for more development for forensics methods to investigate nuclear incidents,” said Mr van Zalen. “We want to compare results from one country to another, and the curriculum and training programme aims to to bring knowledge transfer from experts to policy-makers and responders. It’s now part of a masters in nuclear security at the Delft University of Technology and part of an IAEA programme.”

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said that nuclear forensics were important as they helped to determine the origins of nuclear material. “The institute plays a prominent role and I expect it will produce a lot of good work in the coming years,” he said.

Governments in 24 countries, including the US, Australia, Algeria, Canada, France, and Japan, have expressed an interest in the initiative.

Although the UAE was not one of them, it works with the institute in a broader forensics role.

Tjark Tjin-A-Tsoi, the NFI’s chief executive, said such cooperative techniques could prevent a dirty-bomb attack.

“Often, [people] smuggle these materials into a certain country and you have to use forensic techniques to find the people behind the smuggling,” he said. “And smuggling is going on quite a bit.”

He said forensics had not previously been used for radiological material. “Because the field was focused on murders, you had laboratories working on nuclear material with no traditional forensics so we’re trying to merge both fields, using the techniques from one and the other,” he said. “These types of incidents are always international and everybody has the same risks.”