Nuclear Forensics:

Comprehensive Interagency Plan Needed to Address Human Capital Issues

GAO-09-527R: Published: Apr 30, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 1, 2009.

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The detonation of a nuclear weapon or radiological dispersal device (RDD) in the United States or elsewhere would cause decision makers to immediately demand information on the nature of the device--including its design, the materials used to build it, and the materials' source--as well as the identification of the perpetrators. Technical nuclear forensics--the analysis of nuclear or radiological materials that are intercepted or the radioactive debris and prompt output signals (such as gamma rays) produced by a nuclear event--can contribute to the identification of the sources of these materials and the processes used to create them. Analytical techniques developed to determine the nature of nuclear tests can be used if terrorists were to detonate a nuclear device or RDD and radioactive debris samples were recovered (known as "postdetonation" nuclear forensics). Nuclear forensic techniques also could potentially be used to determine the origin of nuclear or radiological materials or devices seized prior to their use in a weapon (known as "predetonation" nuclear forensics). The U.S. government's predetonation nuclear forensics capabilities have been demonstrated in investigations on seized nuclear material from illicit smuggling operations. In addition, it is important to note that nuclear forensics represents a key piece of the overall effort to identify specific perpetrators of a nuclear event, in a process known as attribution. The combination of nuclear forensics conclusions, law enforcement findings (e.g., traditional forensics, such as fingerprint analysis), and intelligence information can be used to attribute an event to specific perpetrators. The departments of Defense (DOD), Energy (DOE), Homeland Security (DHS), and State (State), as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the intelligence community, would play key roles in a nuclear forensics investigation. The specific roles these agencies would play were established in August 2007 through a presidential decision directive. This directive also formally established the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center (NTNFC) within DHS's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to coordinate planning, integration, assessment, and stewardship of the U.S. government's nuclear forensics capabilities. NTNFC has chartered a number of interagency groups to guide policy making for the National Technical Nuclear Forensics (NTNF) program and has led the development of key interagency documents such as the NTNF strategic plan. In this context, Congress asked GAO to assess the (1) challenges the U.S. government faces in developing and maintaining a comprehensive nuclear forensics capability and (2) current and future costs associated with the U.S. government's nuclear forensics efforts.

Agencies implementing the NTNF program face challenges in reducing the time needed to arrive at nuclear forensics conclusions and addressing human capital shortages in key disciplines--such as radiochemistry--needed for nuclear forensics. Agencies are working to significantly reduce the time needed to collect, transport, and analyze nuclear forensics samples after an event. For example, DOD has supported a variety of research and development efforts to make sample collection more efficient. In addition, DOE national laboratories are engaged in research and development initiatives to automate laboratory techniques used to analyze radioactive samples and to modernize aging equipment. With regard to human capital challenges, agencies lack a comprehensive interagency plan to guide their efforts. DHS has led interagency efforts to promote the development of trained nuclear forensics experts, including funding summer schools and internships. However, the agency has not fully assessed the demand for these specialists from competing areas outside the NTNF program, such as private industry. In addition, DHS-led efforts to promote radiochemistry have not been well coordinated with similar programs at DOE and NRC. To address the human capital challenges facing the program, we are recommending that DHS work with other agencies to develop a comprehensive interagency plan. According to DHS, agencies implementing the NTNF program planned to spend about $60 million and $59 million in fiscal years 2008 and 2009, respectively, but the future budgetary needs to support the program are unknown. Regarding current program costs, the projected spending total DHS provided underestimates the program's true costs because it does not include costs associated with many DOD, DOE, and State programs that are critical to supporting nuclear forensics. The long-term future budget for the NTNF program is undetermined, in part, because agencies have not developed a plan to mitigate any possible reductions in the funding streams for activities that currently pay for the infrastructure, equipment, and personnel upon which the nation's nuclear forensics capabilities depend. GAO is recommending that agencies more fully account for the amounts spent on other DOD, DOE, and State efforts that the NTNF program relies upon and take steps to mitigate potential effects of budget reductions for these efforts.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of U.S. government efforts to address challenges facing the NTNF program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Secretaries of Energy, Defense, and State, and the Director of the FBI, should develop a comprehensive interagency plan to address the human capital deficiencies affecting the NTNF program. This plan should include estimates of the long-term demand, from both the U.S. government and private industry, for trained personnel in key disciplines, such as radiochemistry, that support the NTNF program. The plan should be linked with program requirements, address coordination issues with existing federal efforts to promote radiochemistry, and include cost estimates for each aspect of the plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of U.S. government efforts to address challenges facing the NTNF program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Secretaries of Energy, Defense, and State, and the Director of the FBI, should more fully account for the indirect costs borne by DOD, DOE, State, and other agencies that are not currently reflected in the NTNF program budget.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of U.S. government efforts to address challenges facing the NTNF program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the Secretaries of Energy, Defense, and State, and the Director of the FBI, should assess the potential impact of projected reductions in the budgets for programs that the agencies rely upon to conduct their nuclear forensics missions and take steps to mitigate any negative impacts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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