Nuclear forensics at the CNSC

August 24, 2015

The Canadian National Nuclear Forensics Capability Project (National Project) was launched in 2013 as a Whole-of-Government initiative to enhance Canada’s capacity to respond to the unlikely threat of nuclear and other radioactive (RN) material found outside of regulatory control.

Establishing a nuclear forensics capability requires broad operational and technical competencies, so this initiative has many contributors.

These include the CNSC along with nine other federal departments and agencies: Canadian Nuclear Laboratories; Defence Research and Development Canada; the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development; the Department of National Defence; Health Canada; the National Research Council; Public Safety Canada; the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; and the Royal Military College of Canada.

What is nuclear forensics?

Nuclear forensics is the scientific analysis of nuclear or other radioactive materials, or evidence contaminated with radioactive materials, which contributes to the broader investigation of a nuclear security event.

In the unlikely event that RN materials are found out of regulatory control, nuclear forensic science can provide insight into their history and origins.

It is an iterative process that exploits material tracking identifiers, as well as the isotopic, chemical, and physical signatures of nuclear and other radioactive material, to potentially link these materials to people, places and events.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s activities in nuclear forensics

The National Project consists of two primary work streams.

Stream 1: The establishment of a national network of laboratories capable of carrying out nuclear forensics analyses on RN material evidence, as well as on evidence contaminated with RN materials.

Stream 2: The development of a National Nuclear Forensics Library (NNFL) containing comprehensive descriptions of RN materials under Canadian regulatory control (i.e., produced, used or stored within Canada), which will provide the basis for comparative assessments with RN material encountered outside of regulatory control.

The CNSC participates actively in all aspects of the National Project and is the lead agency responsible for delivering Canada’s NNFL (Stream 2). The CNSC has made a commitment to continue to develop, maintain and operate an NNFL capability on behalf of the Government of Canada.

National Nuclear Forensics Library

The CNSC is taking an incremental approach to the NNFL development program. The initial goal is to develop a proof-of-concept prototype using one material group.

The program involves two main activities: uranium ore concentrate (UOC) material sample characterization, and the development of data analytics approaches, methods and tools.

In the project’s current phase, UOC samples are being analyzed for 57 trace-element concentrations, as well as for lead and uranium isotopic ratios.

Sample characterization data is then mined using advanced data analytics methods for geological, chemical and processing signatures inherent to UOC.

Identifying these signatures allows comparative assessment of unknown UOC material for the purposes of establishing where they came from.

It is important to note that UOC material is the focus of the program for development purposes only, and not because of security, safeguards and/or non-proliferation concerns.

Data analytics development is being carried out in collaboration with National Research Council subject-matter experts, is proceeding on two parallel tracks:

  • The first involves chemometrics, which is the application of data analytics methods for the interrogation and identification of patterns in chemical systems. This is a supervised approach guided by chemistry and geochemistry expertise.
  • The second development track involves applying machine learning and statistical methods to isolate numerical structures within UOC data. This approach is semi-/unsupervised as it uses mathematical methods without the guidance of domain expertise.

These two approaches will be consolidated into a single tool in a manner that combines and maximizes the discrimination capabilities of the supervised and semi-/unsupervised approaches.

As part of its Stream 1 activities, the CNSC is also participating in several other domestic and international initiatives.

These include laboratory material intercomparison exercises to establish procedures and best practices for forensic analysis of RN materials, including aspects related to ensuring chain of custody and handling of material that can potentially be entered into evidence in judicial proceedings.

The CNSC has also made significant investments in its laboratory through the National Project.

This will enable it to continue its role in enabling Canada’s overall nuclear forensics capability, and particularly its vital role within the national nuclear forensics laboratory network.

International activities related to nuclear forensics

The CNSC, in cooperation with other federal departments, plays a leading role on behalf of the Government of Canada in international activities for advancing nuclear forensics capabilities, specifically in the design and delivery of tabletop exercises, and in the development of best practices and guidance documents through the Nuclear Security Summit process, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the International Technical Working Group on Nuclear Forensics.