Radiological Dispersion Device. Courtesy/ready.gov
Fixing A Hole Where The Blame Gets In
- The dangerous gap between an act of nuclear terrorism and an informed response
The specter of a nuclear 9/11 may have diminished in the last five years with the partial dismantlement and dispersal of the Islamic militant organization al-Qaida. But the threat of nuclear sabotage as one of the worst imaginable disasters has found a new sponsor in the al-Qaida offspring, the apocalyptic Islamic State, now enjoying battlefield successes in Iraq and Syria and said to be recruiting chemical weapons experts, while claiming that it can buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan.
In this context, a new paper on nuclear forensics adds to recurring concerns about U.S. strategy for combatting radiological attacks by terrorists. The study by Philip Baxter, “The False Hope of Nuclear Forensics? Assessing the Timeliness of Forensics Intelligence,” revisits a question about a potential nuclear vulnerability that has been asked a number of times over the last decade.
The question is a practical one: If a nuclear explosion or a detonated radiological dispersion device can be traced back to the perpetrators, can that attribution procedure be accomplished quickly enough to provide reliable guidance for an appropriate response? The query has been deftly brushed aside or accepted as an understandably unanswerable proposition because of the uncertainties involved, but the issue has not been laid to rest.
In the language of the intelligence service, nuclear forensics applies nuclear and analytical technologies to the study of nuclear materials in order to link people, places, things and events and also to identify how nuclear materials were produced, their intended use and where they were produced. According to the Department of Homeland Security, nuclear forensics is the “keystone” of the U.S. anti-terrorism policy, because it acts as a deterrent by reducing the ability of culprits to remain anonymous.
By nature, Baxter explains, nuclear forensics has evident limitations. “The processes of forensics do not produce immediate results,” he wrote. Further, the material might not be derived from a nation or state with a known nuclear fingerprint and modus operandi. “Black market material could [be] the ideal method of weaponization, as its origins would prove nearly impossible due to the decoupling and thus confusion between perpetrator and originator.”
While nuclear forensics is a highly advanced science that is further bolstered by intelligence information, a problem remains that it takes an indeterminate amount of time to reach a high degree of certainty, especially considering the potential consequences of error or misjudgment.
Baxter’s contribution to the debates has been to develop a network analysis system for comparing the amount of time it takes to draw a conclusive attribution, compared to the amount of time before a decision-maker will be forced to act.
The author gathered input mainly from a 2013 assessment of the state of nuclear forensics by the Joint Working Group of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a database of major terrorist attacks. The assumptions, trade-offs and proxies for this kind of analysis are significant variables for deriving representative metrics, especially the use of data from incidents that include both conventional and unconventional attacks. Unconventional weapons are the ones involving chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, and they generally take longer to analyze and more often lead to a prompt retaliation whether or not the attackers and their weapons are fully attributed.
Bottom line, within broad parameters, Baxter writes:
From this review, the ability of nuclear forensics to provide rapid, actionable intelligence is unlikely. While it is acknowledged that the process would produce gains along the way, an effective zone of intelligence production can be assumed between 21-90 days optimistically….However, this does not align with the average (22 days) and median (12 days) time of response for conventional attacks. More importantly, unconventional attack responses fall well before this effective zone with an average of 19 days and a median of 10.
Baxter is a PhD Student at Georgia Tech and has been a Nonproliferation Fellow at the National Nuclear Security Administration. His study was published as a Public Interest paper by the Federation of American Scientists, which follows tightly held intelligence information, including unclassified information on nuclear forensics. In October 2014, the FAS blog Secrecy News published a set of highly redacted reports from a national intelligence workshop held in July 2009. The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request in December 2009.
Among a number of key comments pulled from the record of the workshop on Transforming Nuclear Attribution: Culture, Community, and Change, one in particular makes clear that the attribution gap has been known since at least that time, even if it was not wrapped in a numerical analysis. The authors express optimism that the gap could be closed over time and that the problem would eventually be resolved. “We are far less confident,” they added that as currently configured these agencies will be able to deliver meaningful, rapid success.”
Editor’s note: A request for additional information on the current status of the attribution question for this column from well-known subject matter experts at Los Alamos National Laboratory was denied.