Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Photo of Brad Wallin

Brad Wallin

Manager of the Nuclear Threat Reduction Program within the Global Security Principal Directorate

Science and Technology in Support of Nuclear Nonproliferation

As the availability of nuclear technologies, materials, and know-how continues to spread, nuclear proliferation challenges grow and evolve. In response, Lawrence Livermore scientists and engineers work closely with federal, state, and local agencies to develop technical solutions that can help prevent, monitor, and mitigate proliferation activities. Our efforts include supporting nonproliferation treaties, understanding the threat, advancing radiation detectors and nuclear forensics techniques, locating stolen or hidden nuclear material, and training first responders in case of a nuclear emergency.

The feature article, Seeking Out Hidden Radioactive Materials, describes two innovative Livermore approaches to improve radiation detection in support of nuclear nonproliferation. The first is a device called the Spectroscopic Injection Pulser (SIP), which markedly improves radiation detector training for first responders. The second, the Optimization Planning Tool for Urban Search (OPTUS), helps search teams scouring an urban area for nuclear material to cover the area more efficiently.

As explained in the article, SIP is designed to make first-responder training more realistic for conducting searches of localized or dispersed radioactive material. Traditional training on radiation detectors has used relatively harmless—but hardly realistic—isotopes serving as surrogates for uranium, plutonium, and other radiation sources. The Livermore SIP team had a better idea: eliminate the need for surrogates by mimicking the exact signals detectors would receive if these hazardous isotopes were actually present.

While SIP aims to improve emergency preparedness, OPTUS is designed to support field operations. Given time and resource constraints, OPTUS calculates the most efficient route to sweep an area for a hidden nuclear device or other radiation source and gives drivers carrying vehicle-borne detectors turn-by-turn instructions. Livermore experts have played important roles preparing for major national events that could attract terrorists bent on detonating a nuclear device. As an example, in preparation for the 2016 Super Bowl, our experts helped to sweep areas close to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

Our influence in the area of nuclear nonproliferation extends globally. In January, ministers and other senior delegates from 37 nations and international organizations gathered at Lawrence Livermore to discuss effective responses to a hypothetical threat involving terrorists and stolen nuclear material. Called Apex Gold, the two-day meeting was the first-ever minister-level gathering to identify potential actions in the event of a nuclear crisis.

Livermore radiological expertise has also been critical to response and recovery activities. Following the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that resulted in damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, several Laboratory capabilities proved essential. Livermore’s National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC), which provides real-time assessments of dispersion and deposition of radioactive and other toxic materials, was operational for 24 hours a day for several weeks (see S&TR, January/February 2012, Livermore Responds to Crisis in Post-Earthquake Japan). Lawrence Livermore led and performed thousands of analyses of physical samples and data returned by the field teams, which included people from our Radiological Assistance Program.

Since the 1960s, Livermore scientists have supported U.S. efforts and those of other nations to verify disarmament activities. For example, Livermore experts provided technical support for the 2015 negotiation with Iran to significantly diminish its capability to enrich uranium. We have also long provided support to nonproliferation treaties. Livermore staff participated in the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization’s (CTBTO’s) Integrated Field Exercise, which took place in Jordan in 2014. This exercise tested current on-site inspection capabilities to detect a possible underground nuclear test explosion within a 1,000-square-kilometer area. The exercise involved more than 200 participants, including seven Laboratory scientists, as well as multiple Livermore detection technologies. One such technology was the Smart Sampler system—a device that collects possible subsurface noble gas emissions indicative of a nuclear test (see S&TR, June 2015, Supporting an Exercise of Global Importance).

In addition to our contributions in radiation detection, Livermore advances in seismology also drive nonproliferation progress. The breakthrough seismic monitoring technology called the Regional Seismic Travel Time (RSTT) model and computing code improves the accuracy of locating seismic events caused by an underground nuclear test by incorporating a three-dimensional model of Earth’s crust and upper mantle and regional data (see S&TR, June 2015, Seismic Research Making Waves). RSTT has been deployed to international partners through the CTBTO agency.

We are well aware that our job to advance nonproliferation will never be done as long as nuclear threats from both nation states and terrorist groups remain. Until then, the Laboratory will continue to innovate technologies and provide capabilities in support of this international effort.