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Nuclear forensics: Meeting nuclear security needs in a time of challenge - 25 March 2021

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Speaker: David Kenneth Smith, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS).

Chair: Karl Dewey, Research Associate

On 29 May 1999, law enforcement officials discovered smuggled highly-enriched uranium at the Bulgarian border crossing at Ruse on the Danube River. Similar seizures were reported in Paris in 2001 and  Chisinau in 2011. These discoveries set in motion events that underscore the seriousness of trafficking of fissile materials as well as the recognition of nuclear forensics as a response.

The threat persists, and according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), during 2020 there were 189 confirmed incidents of nuclear or other radioactive material out of regulatory control. Since 1993, 3686 incidents have been verified in aggregate - of these, 290 incidents involved trafficking or malicious intent.

Over the past 20 years, nuclear forensics has emerged globally as a capability that allows states to effectively prevent and respond to these incidents. Through the examination and interpretation of data characteristics (or signatures) of nuclear and other radioactive materials, nuclear forensic science is increasingly used by investigators to remedy vulnerabilities and improve the nuclear security regime. The ‘science of signatures’ allows analysts to tell a story that can be applied across the nuclear fuel cycle exploiting persistent diagnostic isotopic, chemical and physical characteristics that can resolve geologic verses anthropogenic origins.


David Kenneth Smith is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. From 2010 to 2020, he served as the Nuclear Security Coordinator (Forensics) in the Division of Nuclear Security at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. There, he led the IAEA radiological crime scene management and nuclear forensics team and was responsible for all facets of international technical assistance to prepare states for the conduct of a nuclear forensics examination.

From 1987 to 2010, he held various leadership and technical staff positions in nuclear test, nuclear security and international security engagement programmes at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) USA. He remains affiliated with LLNL and the Nuclear Forensics International Technical Working Group (ITWG). At the end of 2020 he was recognized by the US Department of State, Bureau of Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and International Security with a certificate of appreciation for his service to advance nuclear security globally.

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At this event

Karl Dewey

Karl Dewey

Research Associate and Project Coordinator

David Smith

David Smith

Visiting Senior Research Fellow

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