Ranks of Nuclear Experts Dwindle

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

Two leading U.S. scientific groups warned yesterday that, in the next 15 years, as many as half of the nation's relatively few experts in identifying smuggled nuclear materials and detonated-bomb components may retire.

The pipeline of young researchers who could replace the nation's 35 to 50 nuclear specialists is almost empty, the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a new report at the association's annual meeting in Boston. They called for an invigorated program of university-research funding, more graduate school and laboratory positions in related disciplines, and new incentives for industry support of university positions.

The study's authors, led by Michael May, director emeritus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said that boosting U.S. nuclear forensics capability will help deter the black-market smuggling of nuclear materials or a nuclear detonation in a city.

Nuclear forensics can be used to trace the source components of a bomb to the government that produced them and potentially to the experts behind such an attack, subjecting them to the prospect of quick retaliation, the 64-page report said. "A credible . . . capability may deter some who are principally motivated by financial, rather than ideological, concerns," the report added.

The scientists' report called for the development of faster and more accurate field equipment, as well as modeling and simulation technologies; the creation of a comprehensive sample-matching database of nuclear materials; national simulations; and the establishment of independent expert panels to measure progress and advise the U.S. government in case of an emergency.

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