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US trains nuclear detectives to trace 'loose' nukes

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Between 1993, when the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency began gathering data on illegal trafficking in nuclear materials, and 2008, the agency received 336 confirmed reports of criminal activity involving nuclear material. The IAEA logged another 421 incidents of stolen or lost nuclear material worldwide. Since 1995, reported incidents have averaged 19 a year.

Moreover, the soil for nuclear mischief may be getting more fertile. Nuclear energy worldwide seems poised for expansion, and, in the West, worries abound about Iran’s nuclear program. The ongoing US-Russia effort to retire more nuclear warheads, if successful, may increase the risk that decommissioned nuclear material could be stolen if adequate safeguards are not in place.

At the same time, a shortage of nuclear forensics experts looms, experts say, citing unclassified reports on the field and a soon-to-be-released study from the National Academy of Sciences.

Indeed, these days just 60 researchers – mainly at the national labs – have experience in nuclear forensics, and none of them works full time on it, says Benn Tannenbaum of the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Why so few? Many people with the skills to conduct nuclear forensic investigations opt for higher-paying jobs in other sectors, such as nuclear medicine or nuclear power.

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