Although the likelihood of a terrorist nuclear attack is extremely low, a lot of work is required to prepare for such an unthinkable event. That’s why a response team assembled by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recently trained in eastern Idaho’s desert on ways to collect and analyze simulated debris from a nuclear detonation. Nuclear forensics—the science of determining the origin of nuclear material—is an essential element of the United States’ strategy to prevent nuclear terrorism.
“The point of the training is deterrence,” said C.J. Johnson, program manager for NNSA’s Office of Nuclear Forensics. “We want our adversaries to know we can figure out who was responsible – and hold them accountable.”
Because terrorists could receive assistance from a hostile government in executing a nuclear attack, determining the source of material used in a nuclear device allows the United States to credibly threaten reprisal against a state complicit in an act of nuclear terrorism.
It takes a team
Nuclear forensics training events provide an opportunity for scientists and security experts to practice the tactics, techniques, and procedures they would employ following a real-world nuclear attack. Equally valuable are the relationships and mutual trust developed while working together through realistic scenarios.
“You can’t maintain a proficient level of this capability if you don’t train,” said David Chichester, a directorate fellow at Idaho National Laboratory who develops radiation measurement systems and consults on nuclear counterproliferation and forensics.
The United States began conducting forensics exercises started nearly 20 years ago, when the National Security Council asked what would happen if the country needed to collect debris for analysis after a nuclear detonation. Around that time, Idaho National Laboratory’s (INL) national security and nuclear nonproliferation capabilities in support of NNSA were starting to grow, leading to the first ground collection exercise in 2005 at the laboratory’s Materials and Fuels Complex.
NNSA is the semi-autonomous agency of the Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, naval nuclear propulsion, and global threat reduction programs. NNSA’s Office of Nuclear Forensics has debris analysis capabilities to identify the source of nuclear material used in a terrorist nuclear device and provide insight into the device’s design. This information would support the investigation into the responsible group, including whether the terrorists received assistance from a foreign government.
For the latest exercise, NNSA assembled several small teams of technical experts from across DOE’s national laboratories. These special teams are part of DOE Forensics Operations, or DFO for short. DFO personnel are on-call 365 days per year to collect nuclear detonation debris samples for forensic analysis. DFO teams can respond at a moment’s notice and travel anywhere in the world on specially designed Boeing 737 aircraft carrying specialized equipment to establish a mobile command center and forensics laboratory.
During the recent training event in Idaho the DFO teams headed to INL’s Critical Infrastructure Test Range Complex, where they set up mobile lab tents and for the next three days collected, cleaned, and screened specially prepared low-level radioactive glass samples that served as simulated nuclear fallout debris.
Clad in personal protective equipment, teams of four people collected the simulated debris. Samples were weighed and analyzed for gamma radiation, put in vials, and stored in lead-lined casks. During an actual post-detonation event, the collected materials would be sent to either Los Alamos National Laboratory or Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for further analysis before being forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which coordinates the investigative effort to identify perpetrators.
While providing realism to the exercise, allowing the team to practice with the encapsulated radioactive samples presented no danger to the public or environment. In fact, the remoteness and wide-open spaces of the Idaho site are ideal for this training.
“There are few other places where you can perform training with radioactive materials at this level,” said NNSA’s Johnson. “They really support what we’re doing, and it’s remote enough that the team can really focus on the task at hand. You get the most effective training if people are not on their phones taking calls all the time.”
A bigger exercise
The INL exercise was just a warmup to a bigger annual training event that NNSA and DOE will participate in next year. Dubbed “Prominent Hunt,” the exercise aims to validate the effectiveness of a combined operational response involving several interagency partners from the Department of Defense and the FBI. The next Prominent Hunt exercise is scheduled for March 2023 in Texas.
Front and center in every Prominent Hunt exercise are members of the ground collection team from the DOE national laboratories. Along with two U.S. Army soldiers, one FBI representative and a DOE ground collection expert, ground collection teams are dispatched to collect nuclear debris samples from a simulated nuclear explosion site, in which the downwind contamination plume is considered to be a crime scene. From the forward operating base, mission planners select locations and ground collection teams use GPS and local maps to travel in unfamiliar urban and suburban areas.
“This is not an easy job, and teamwork is absolutely essential,” Johnson said. “None of us relishes the prospect of performing this task in the real world, but we sincerely believe the more prepared we are for this mission, the less likely it is that a terrorist nuclear attack will come to pass.”