Science and Technology Help the Nation Counter Terrorism
WITH the Cold War receding into memory, the U.S. faces a geopolitical environment that is far more complex, less predictable, yet every bit as dangerous as before. Although the
U.S. remains a military superpower, traditional models of nuclear and conventional deterrence do not apply to terrorist groups or insurgencies. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have repeatedly stated their desire to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the U.S. and its allies and interests.
At Lawrence Livermore, we are dedicated to ensuring and enhancing national security within the global context. In addition to our historical responsibilities related to maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, we also strive to reduce the threat posed by the proliferation or terrorist acquisition of WMD. In particular, we are a national leader in the development of technologies, systems, and capabilities to strengthen the nation’s ability to prevent, detect, interdict, and recover from WMD incidents or terrorist attacks.
Different approaches are needed to counter the various WMD threats. With the nuclear threat, the goal is to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials or, barring that, from reaching their intended target with their device. The very nature of radioactive materials makes them detectable at a distance, giving us a technological approach to locating and interdicting such materials. The article Imagers Provide Eyes to See Gamma Rays describes the development of gamma-ray imagers that can detect weak sources amidst a sea of background radiation. Our large-area gamma-ray imager offers the capability to detect millicurie quantities of a radioactive material at distances approaching 100 meters. A portable system we developed relies on Compton scattering to pinpoint the location of a gamma-ray source. Such imaging detectors will significantly improve the ability of border agents, customs inspectors, law-enforcement officers, and incident response personnel to search for, locate, and identify illicit nuclear material.
A different approach must be taken to address the threat of biological terrorism. Because the materials and equipment needed to make biological weapon agents are widespread and have many legitimate uses, the likelihood of preemptively detecting a biothreat is very low. Therefore, our efforts are directed at developing monitoring systems that can detect a bioagent release in time to contain a disease outbreak. Many of these systems can also be applied to protect public health and the nation’s agricultural industries. Additionally, the collaborations and procedures involved in dealing with a livestock-disease outbreak provide real-world experiences that are directly applicable to the response needed to control a naturally occurring or deliberate human-disease outbreak. The article Protecting the Nation’s Livestock describes Livermore’s work to develop assays to rapidly detect foot-and-mouth disease and differentiate it from other diseases with similar symptoms.
The current world situation presents enormous challenges for U.S. national security. WMD terrorism is a potent, ever-present danger that we can help mitigate by developing methods for countering the threats, even as diplomats and others work to address the underlying issues that motivate terrorist groups. Although technology cannot eliminate the WMD terrorism threat, it is a critical force multiplier that increases the effectiveness of our countermeasures.