Skip to content. Skip to departments. Skip to most popular. Skip to footer.


Nuclear Options


By Mary Daily

Published Oct 1, 2010 9:15 AM

"If, heaven forbid, a nuclear explosion occurs or a nuclear weapon is intercepted, the president and other government officials want to know immediately who is responsible." Former UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale is explaining the unsettling science of nuclear forensics. "Who made the weapon? Where did it come from? Is it the work of a terrorist? Nuclear forensics is the analysis of nuclear materials that can be used for attribution."


Photo by Dan Chavkin.

On issues of national security and nuclear policy, Chancellor Emeritus Carnesale is one of the world's foremost authorities. Today, based at UCLA, the highly regarded nuclear engineer is addressing these life-or-death questions from several angles.

Carnesale, who stepped down from the helm of UCLA at the end of June 2006, chaired a national committee on nuclear forensics in 2009 and earlier this year was named to a Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. The latter group is conducting a comprehensive examination of how the nation's current and future stockpile of nuclear waste should be managed. (Carnesale's leadership isn't limited to nuclear policy, however. He also chairs the National Research Council's Committee on America's Climate Choices, which is to help guide the nation's response to climate change.)

When Carnesale became chancellor of UCLA in 1997, he planned to serve for 10 years. But the decade that followed turned out to be an eventful one for his area of expertise, and he began to feel eager to reengage in issues of nuclear policy. His ninth year, when UCLA's highly successful capital campaign had closed and major campus construction projects were nearing completion, "seemed like a particularly good time to transition to the next chancellor," he says.

So after a yearlong sabbatical at Harvard, where he had served as provost before coming to UCLA, Carnesale resumed thinking about the unthinkable in its many manifestations.

The 12-member nuclear forensics panel he led was established by the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. departments of homeland security, defense and energy. Its charge was to examine the current state of the nation's capability to analyze intercepted nuclear material and debris from nuclear explosions and to recommend how the capacity should be enhanced.

The group's report — an unclassified, abbreviated version of which was made public in July — describes that capability as substantial, but "fragile and . . . deteriorating," in danger of decline "without strong leadership, careful planning and additional funds." Much of the capability lies in laboratories that thrived during the cold war but are now struggling to attract funding and personnel. Facilities and equipment are outdated; upcoming analysts are in short supply.

"The U.S. hasn't designed or tested a nuclear weapon in almost 20 years," says Carnesale, who represented the U.S. in atomic negotiations during the cold war. "The people with the expertise are retiring."

Reading About the Unthinkable

Download "Nuclear Forensics: A Capability at Risk."

Read what Newsweek magazine had to say about the science of nuclear forensics and why it is critical to the national security of the United States.

Learn more about Dr. Carnesale's work and career.

Yet, to protect our national security, analysts must be in place, regularly conducting exercises, just as first responders do for all kinds of emergencies. The panel stressed the need for larger budgets, clearer lines of authority, more realistic exercises and adequate training of young analysts.

After reviewing the report, a key U.S. Defense Department official said he agreed with the overall findings: "That report kind of hurts, but it's . . . truthful."

Meanwhile, Carnesale continues to expose UCLA students to the intricacies of nuclear policy and national security. As he did while chancellor, he leads a Fiat Lux seminar on the future of nuclear weapons. He also co-teaches a course on national security policy to graduate and undergraduate students.

"The students generally feel we should be doing more to reduce risk," Carnesale says. "They point to the cold war as a time of peace, but I remind them that, back then, we deterred war by making it horrible, by keeping thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger. 'Think what would have happened,' I tell them, 'had there been an accident.' "



Most Tweeted

    Range: Jan 03, 2021 – Present

      Range: Dec 04, 2020 – Present

        Range: Oct 20, 2020 – Present