Rep. Schiff Supporting the Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I thank the chairman of the full committee for his leadership on this issue and for his indulgence of my perseverance. I'm very grateful that the bill moved so quickly and for his support of it. I also want to thank the chairman of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, Science and Technology, Jim Langevin, for his leadership, and also thank the Ranking Member Mr. McCaul. I really appreciate all of your help. It's been a bipartisan effort from the very beginning, and that's the way it should be.

Through this legislation, we're taking an important step to prevent nuclear terrorism, and I appreciate, again, all of the work of the committee and staff.

Nuclear terrorism is the preeminent threat of our time. Many countries around the world now have access to technology that was once the realm of only a few. Just last week it was reported that an advanced nuclear weapon design was found on a computer connected to one nuclear smuggling ring, and that was the one mentioned by my colleague, Mr. Langevin. Illicit nuclear material has been intercepted in transit many times since the Cold War, and the material we catch is probably just a small fraction of the total amount trafficked.

The President and Congress have recognized that a nuclear attack on the United States is the most important national security threat facing our country. In the ongoing effort to strengthen our border, this Congress has made it more difficult to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States. But with thousands of miles of borders to secure against weapons just a few feet in size, we cannot simply play defense at the border. We must also prevent the weapons and materials that lie in storage around the world from falling into the wrong hands.

During the Cold War, we deterred the Soviet Union with the threat of nuclear retaliation. Unfortunately, the decentralized flexible terror networks that we face today are not as easily deterred. Osama bin Laden has termed the acquisition of mass destruction a religious duty. And there is no question that using such a weapon against America is consistent with the group's contempt for human life.

The Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act is designed to help shut down trade in nuclear material by deterring those parts of the trafficking network susceptible to deterrence. If we identify the source of nuclear material, then when we intercept it in transit, we can hold responsible those who created it and shared it with terrorists or rogue nations. In the aftermath of an attack, God forbid, this capability would also help determine the identity of those responsible. Nations, companies, and individuals could be dissuaded from proliferating knowing that their malfeasance could be traced back to them.

The first part of this bill expands our ability to determine the source of nuclear material by strengthening our nuclear forensics capability. Nuclear forensics is the study of the chemistry and physical properties of nuclear material that give it a particular signature. Scientists and engineers skilled in the field can also use information from the packaging and accompanying materials to pinpoint a source.

But acquiring, analyzing, characterizing, and attributing samples is a complicated process. Though we have the capability to perform each step, our expertise is split between the Departments of Energy, Defense, Homeland Security, and State.

This bill authorizes a national technical nuclear forensics center in the Department of Homeland Security. The center will coordinate the various agencies and ensure that a sufficient combined response is present whenever nuclear material is intercepted or used in a weapon. It will also advance the science of nuclear forensics bringing in new radiochemists and physicists into a rapidly aging workforce and funding research on new methods to identify materials from around the world.

But this bill also has another purpose. As with fingerprints or DNA, the strength of nuclear forensics depends on the strength of our database. Nuclear material can come from many nations, some friendly and some unfriendly.