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PNNL trying to keep world safe from nuclear weapons

September 12, 2015
Source: Tri-City Herald, reposted with permission from Tri-City Herald

PNNL's Shallow Underground Laboratory

Scientists at PNNL's Shallow Underground Laboratory use an electroforming process to produce high purity copper for ultra-low background detector research and development for environmental, national security and fundamental physics applications. This research supports activities including international treaty verification to prevent and counter acts of terrorism. Courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

By Steven Ashby, director
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


Despite the end of the Cold War, the spread of nuclear weapons and the trafficking of nuclear materials remain real national and global security challenges. Addressing these challenges is one of the main missions of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Almost half of our research staff are working on programs to deliver science and technology to protect against these threats.

PNNL uses its world-class nuclear and radiological expertise to advance the global nuclear security goals of DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). In addition to our research and development activities, PNNL experts provide policy support and help implement nonproliferation technologies and systems.

For example, PNNL is a leader in detecting and analyzing trace amounts of radioactivity, and as such, we are one of 16 laboratories that provide technical support to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The treaty by the same name has been signed by 183 countries, including the United States, and ratified by 163. It bans nuclear explosions by everyone everywhere, whether on the Earth's surface, in the atmosphere, underwater or underground. PNNL helped develop and deploy several monitoring technologies — including a network of 80 radionuclide monitoring stations covering the globe — to help ensure the treaty's effectiveness.

Securing nuclear and radiological materials requires international cooperation at all levels, and PNNL staff travel around the world to work with their foreign partners. For example, three years ago, PNNL worked with China's customs organization to open a new Radiation Detection Training Center in Qinhuangdao, China. Our staff members were instrumental in designing and equipping the center as well as developing its training curriculum.

This summer, I got to see first-hand the great work our staff is doing to keep the world safe. In Morocco, I saw how PNNL experts worked with their colleagues to secure a radiological source at an agricultural research lab as part of the NNSA's Radiological Security Program. A few days later, we were in Romania to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony for radiation portal monitors that PNNL helped install at the Bucharest airport as part of another NNSA program. I was struck by the incredible dedication of our staff and the commitment of our foreign partners to help protect our citizens from the illicit trafficking of radiological and nuclear materials.

In total, PNNL experts have developed and installed physical security measures at 1,284 facilities in 52 countries and 36 states within the United States as part of our support to NNSA's Office of Radiological Security. PNNL staff members assess and enhance physical security at partner facilities around the globe that house various nuclear and radiological materials. While there are legitimate medical, scientific, commercial and industrial purposes for these materials, they also are a target for terrorist organizations and others with malicious intent — creating, for example, a radiological dispersal device or "dirty bomb." PNNL is a recognized leader in this longstanding program, which offers partner facilities options for enhanced security, material removal and disposal, and nonisotopic alternatives to prevent this material from falling into the wrong hands.

Closer to home, PNNL supports the Department of Homeland Security's deployment of radiation portal monitors at U.S. border crossings. These systems can detect radiation emanating from nuclear devices, dirty bombs, special nuclear materials, natural sources and isotopes commonly used in medicine and industry. Nearly 1,400 of the monitors have been installed in the last 10 years to scan 100 percent of privately owned vehicles and cargo at our border crossings and 99 percent of all containerized cargo arriving by sea.

Since threats continue to evolve, so must our capabilities. PNNL scientists and engineers are hard at work to advance our detection and monitoring systems. This requires fundamental research in high-energy and nuclear physics, as well as applied materials research and development. For example, in our Shallow Underground Laboratory, we are "growing" ultrapure copper for use in even more sensitive radiation detectors — instruments that are essential for our security work, but also invaluable in basic scientific research focused on understanding the origins of the universe.

The importance of our work was recently underscored by the NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, Anne Harrington, who visited PNNL's Richland and Seattle campuses last month. During meetings with staff, she emphasized the role we play in securing the nation and the world — and she thanked our staff for their hard work and dedication to mission.

I, too, thank these incredibly talented people for all that they do. As Albert Einstein once said, "Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding." We all can be proud that PNNL is doing its part through scientific understanding.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.

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