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US 'nuclear sleuthing' abilities need improvement: report

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Still, "much work remains to be done," Dr. Carnesale writes in the preface to the unclassified report.

Ideally, nuclear sleuths try intercept illicit nuclear material before anyone can turn it into a weapon or terrorist device.

A great deal of effort goes into accounting for nuclear materials not only from government weapons programs, but those used in the private sector for everything from medical imaging to irradiating food as a preservative.

If that material goes AWOL, then shows up in a box in the trunk of someone's car, it's up to nuclear-forensic experts to analyze samples to determine where it came from.

Virtually everyone agrees that an attack on US soil involving either a small nuclear weapon, a dirty bomb (which uses chemical explosives to spread radioactive material), or other forms of irradiated material is the most grave terrorist threat the country faces.

Thus, the pressure to quickly deliver reliable information on the nature of the material used and its most likely source to the president and to Congress would be enormous.

Yet in drills, the time from "event" to finished analysis would leave the policymakers responsible for responding to the incident drumming their fingers with frustration, the panel suggests – even though the agencies involved typically receive advance notice of the exercise and the materials involved.

If the event were real, the panel says, investigators would be hard-pressed to produce results within the time given for the drills.

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