How nuclear forensics can help us to tackle nuclear terrorism

Speech given at the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism on 7 January 2014.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP

Good morning. My thanks to the co-chairs of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and all our partners in this event, notably the Atomic Weapons Establishment, Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

My thanks also to you for taking the time to join us at Lancaster House to explore how nuclear forensics can help us to tackle nuclear terrorism.

Since 2011 the terrorist threat to the UK has remained substantial and it is likely to endure for the foreseeable future.

In that broader sense, reducing the risk from terrorism is no easy task.

The threat continues to change in ways that present us with new operational challenges, and we have to work hard to ensure that our capabilities stay one step ahead of those challenges.


Overseas, we are seeing the threat from terrorism diversify and spread into unstable and war-torn countries.

The UK faces a significant threat from Al Qa’ida in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Groups affiliated or associated with Al Qa’ida have also become stronger and more active across a range of unstable states.

And the conflict in Syria has attracted a large number of foreign fighters, some of whom may pose a direct threat to the UK.

At home, the security challenges facing the UK continue to evolve, and so must our counter-terrorism work.

The impact of a terrorist attack involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials would be potentially catastrophic our focus is to ensure that the UK remains a hard target for any terrorist with ambitions to use these materials against us.

The UK’s national security is the first priority of this government.

National Security Council

In 2010 we established the National Security Council, that brings together senior ministers under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister to address urgent or emerging national security priorities and develop a long term strategy across the full range of national security issues, including counter-terrorism and nuclear issues.

The UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as CONTEST, delivers a broad range of programmes aimed at: stopping terrorists launching attacks against the UK; preventing the radicalisation of vulnerable individuals; ensuring our national infrastructure is safeguarded and that our counter-terrorism response capabilities remain as resilient as ever.

I think in framing the debate, it’s important to look at this in the wider context.

We continue to review this strategy in the face of ever changing threats to ensure our response remains both robust and proportionate.

Extremism Task Force

For example, following dreadful events in Woolwich, London, the Prime Minister established the Extremism Task Force to build on the work we have been doing through the Prevent Strategy to deal with all forms of extremism.

We continue to make progress in supporting people who are vulnerable to radicalisation.

We are committed to ensuring that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to protect the public and ensure national security.

These agencies use communications data – communications data helps to keep the public safe: it is used by the police to investigate crimes, bring offenders to justice and to save lives.

We are also seeking legislative and process changes to improve our ability to deport terrorist suspects.

We have delivered targeted investment to aviation and border security capabilities in priority countries overseas, and we have extended the no-fly arrangements to prevent people who pose a terrorist threat from flying to or from the UK.

We continue to develop the UK’s resilience against disruptive incidents, and our response capability continues to evolve in a number of areas.

Recently we have been testing a new mobile alerting capability which will help to warn and inform the public in the event of an emergency.

We have also seen significant improvements in the police’s firearms capability to respond to the threat of a terrorist attack involving firearms, as highlighted by the tragic attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi last year.

To bring this into the direct focus of nuclear terrorism, fortunately and thanks to combined efforts the likelihood of terrorists obtaining a functioning radiological or nuclear device to attack the UK is low.

Ensuring the UK is a Hard Target

But that doesn’t mean the risk isn’t real. It is important that we take this risk seriously and continue to ensure the UK is a hard target.

Globally there have been great strides in securing radiological and nuclear materials. But there will always remain a risk that dangerous material could fall into the wrong hands.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Incident Tracking Database records incidents of radiological and nuclear materials being found outside of regulatory control – and between 1993 and 2012, the IAEA’s Trafficking Database recorded 419 incidents of unauthorised possession and criminal activity relating to radiological or nuclear material.

And the availability of nuclear material could increase as more nations adopt nuclear energy.

We must work together to ensure that controls on dangerous material remain tight and we correctly manage sensitive nuclear information.

We must prevent access to nuclear devices, materials and expertise by those who would seek to do us harm, so these materials are never used for illicit purposes.

This must be a collective, cooperative and comprehensive effort.

The importance of ensuring the security of sensitive nuclear information was highlighted at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit.

As we approach the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, we will continue to work with global partners to catalyse action on securing sensitive nuclear information.

The UK attaches great importance to the global effort around protecting sensitive nuclear information.

We know that the acquisition of nuclear knowledge and know-how is as important to a would-be nuclear terrorist as the acquisition of the nuclear or radiological material itself.

National Counter Proliferation Strategy

In March 2012 the UK government launched a new National Counter Proliferation Strategy for 2012-2015.

Driven by the key risks identified in our National Security Strategy, it sets out what we will do to reduce proliferation risks.

First among these is denying access to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials and expertise by terrorists.

The UK will continue to encourage other states to reach out to us or the UN for assistance in strengthening their counter-proliferation measures.

But the importance of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism remains a key part of our fight against nuclear terrorism.

The UK joined the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism when it launched in 2006, along with 12 other countries.

Its mission is to strengthen global capacity to prevent, detect and respond to nuclear terrorism by conducting multilateral activities that strengthen the plans, policies, procedures and interoperability of partner nations.

Today the Global Initiative is a partnership of 85 nations and four official observers - the EU, IAEA, Interpol and UNODC.

Last year, the UK hosted the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism Symposium on the Enhanced Detection of Special Nuclear Material here at Lancaster House.

This gathered around 70 international experts from 20 partner nations and three observer organisations.

They share the latest developments in science and technology to meet the challenge of detecting ‘shielded’ nuclear material.

Working Collaboratively

In many ways, today’s event is a natural follow on to that one as we work collaboratively to build ever more capable systems to mitigate the risk of radiological and nuclear terrorism.

Our collective work on nuclear forensics is integral to strengthening the global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism.

It should provide vital information for those investigating nuclear security incidents and is a key element of a broader investigatory process that brings together law enforcement and intelligence.

It can help us identify, pursue and prosecute anybody who would seek to use these sorts of materials to perpetrate acts of terror.

The UK is developing advanced nuclear forensics capabilities and practices, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about that today.

Building upon the knowledge and capabilities of the Atomic Weapons Establishment we have created a dedicated nuclear forensics analytical capability that allows the UK to investigate criminal acts involving nuclear materials.

The Conventional Forensics Analysis Capability

The Conventional Forensics Analysis Capability can recover fingerprints, fibres, DNA and other traditional trace forensics markers from material that have been contaminated with radiological, nuclear or explosive materials.

I had the pleasure of opening the facility in May 2012 and seeing first hand its state of the art nature.

I also saw how complex nuclear forensics is. It is a time consuming, meticulous process that enables subject matter experts to draw inferences about nuclear and radiological material.

We must remember that nuclear forensics is just one part of a multifaceted picture.

Our expertise in this area must be embedded and integrated into our existing law enforcement and operational systems, to provide a seamless end to end capability for managing nuclear security incidents.

And there is long chain to consider. For example intelligence analysis, crime scene management, evidence collection and handling, the chain of custody of evidence from crime scene to laboratory, conventional forensics techniques, nuclear forensics techniques and preparing for prosecution.

Our nuclear forensics capabilities play a part in a wider criminal investigative effort to detect nuclear crime and prosecute any offenders.

It therefore follows that nuclear forensics techniques must be legally compliant, so the evidence stands up in court and supports successful prosecutions.

That’s why it’s important to set the capabilities in this broader context and framework to ensure it can be used effectively and bring those responsible to justice.

But nuclear forensics is just one part of the UK’s work on nuclear security and one tool in the toolbox for countries that need a comprehensive programme to mitigate the risks of nuclear security.

Coordinated Effort From Across Government

Nuclear security requires coordinated effort from across government: from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office leading our counter proliferation work overseas that I have already highlighted, to the Department for Energy and Climate Change ensuring that a robust security architecture exists at our civil nuclear sites.

I want to give you a couple of examples where my department, the Home Office, leads.

An essential element of a comprehensive approach to nuclear security is a border detection system that prevents terrorists from trying to move material in the first place and catches them if they do.

In the UK, our border detection system capability – Cyclamen – detects the illicit importation of radioactive or nuclear materials by terrorists or criminals.

It forms a key part of our work to protect the UK and is a feature of CONTEST.

Cyclamen uses a combination of fixed and mobile equipment to screen vehicles, containers, freight and pedestrians for the presence of radioactive and nuclear material at UK points of entry.

The equipment detects radiation emitting materials. Cyclamen operates across the UK, 24 hours a day.

But we cannot rest on our laurels and we must continue to invest in science and technology to stay a step ahead of the terrorists.

That is why the British government has a comprehensive science and technology programme that supports our cross-government work.

In particular, the enhanced detection programme is a collaboration between the Home Office, Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office and has a number of workstreams led by AWE that is making a real contribution to our plans for smarter and more capable mobile detection systems, so we can ensure that resilience.

Gathered here today are some of the world’s leading experts.


You know that nuclear forensics is a challenging scientific domain and that we need to work together to define and promulgate best practice.

I would certainly like to say on behalf of the UK that we are delighted to be hosting this event and helping to bring together scientists, law enforcement officers and policy makers from around the world to discuss this important issue – which is vital for the security of our nations and vital for the security of our citizens.

I very much welcome the debate and discussion today. I hope it is informative and will help in ensuring our knowledge and advance our understanding of this important issue.

Published 7 January 2014