PROBLEM: Can new technologies stem the
ORNL's research and development portfolio, perhaps the most diverse of any U.S. national laboratory, has a distinguished tradition of nuclear research and innovation reaching back to the Manhattan project. Today a portion of that nuclear legacy is being applied to the international challenge of keeping nuclear materials secure and limiting their use for peaceful purposes.
Addressing what has become one of America's most critical national security challenges is ORNL's Global Security and Nonproliferation Programs group, headed by Larry Satkowiak. When it comes to non-proliferation issues, Satkowiak says the main concerns are always, "Materials, materials, materials—eliminating access to materials, moving materials from locations that are at risk, detecting the illegal movement of materials, and down-blending materials so they are no longer capable of being used as a weapon of mass destruction."
Most of the work Satkowiak's group is involved in is funded by the Office of Defense Nuclear Non-proliferation within the National Nuclear Security Administration. The ORNL group's activities run the gamut from basic research and development to field implementation of security systems.
Satkowiak notes that many of the non-proliferation issues we face today have been the same for the last 15 or 20 years, a period that coincides roughly with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of former Soviet states that overnight became nuclear powers. Chief among these issues is the need to secure materials that could be used in an improvised nuclear device and securing and removing radiological materials that could be used in a dirty bomb. "The Department of Energy has made a lot of progress in this area," Satkowiak says, "particularly with the work that has been done with the states of the former Soviet Union, but we're not quite there yet."
Over the last three years, ORNL has been helping to fulfill the terms of the Bratislava Agreement, a nonproliferation pact negotiated between the United States and Russia in 2006. Under this agreement, the United States agreed to help provide safeguards and security assistance for weapons storage sites, missile sites, dismantlement locations, and other facilities within the Russian nuclear weapons complex. "There has been a genuine push by both parties during the last three years to complete the work outlined by this agreement," says Satkowiak.
ORNL's contribution to this assistance package included providing upgraded measurement equipment, technical experts for improving the security of the facilities, and training on the tracking of nuclear materials. "The critical first step is knowing what materials you have, how much you have, and where the materials are located," Satkowiak says. "Teams from ORNL and Sandia National Laboratories have made significant contributions to the security of these Russian facilities, with follow-on work to continue."
One of the keys to controlling the proliferation of nuclear materials is the ability to detect their movements—in and out of buildings, through ports, and across national boundaries. ORNL is working the detection issue on several technology fronts. "We are developing materials that can be used in the next generation of radiation detectors," Satkowiak says. "The researchers are trying to make them smaller, more sensitive, and more robust, so they can be deployed in the field both domestically and internationally."
Most of these down-sized detectors are hand-held devices, designed to be carried by inspectors. For larger-scale applications, Satkowiak's group is also working on improving the detection capabilities of so-called "portal" monitors—sensors that can detect nuclear materials being transported on roadways or through international ports. "Some are deployed overseas near government buildings to detect the presence of radioactive or nuclear materials within approaching vehicles," Satkowiak says. "Similar technologies are deployed at international and domestic ports to monitor goods going in and out of the United States."
The ORNL team is also working with a number of countries in the National Security Administration's Megaports Initiative, encouraging them to monitor U.S.-bound cargo shipments for nuclear materials. "It's another layer of protection," Satkowiak says. "We can monitor U.S. ports, but if we expand this monitoring by another layer and intercept dangerous materials before reaching our ports—even better."
Some countries initially were less than enthusiastic about the Megaports Initiative. Satkowiak says their perspective changed when the monitors revealed radioactive materials coming into their own countries.
ORNL's new generation of detectors is designed to be sensitive to smaller amounts of radioactive material, as well as to accommodate the need to detect materials in fast-moving vehicles. "One of the limitations of our current detection systems is that vehicles need to be moving at a steady rate of about 8-9 miles per hour," Satkowiak says. "By making detectors more sensitive, researchers can increase the transit speed of the vehicles and still maintain the detection capability." Keeping transit speed high is a key element of deploying portal detectors in high-traffic areas.
In addition to enhancing detector technology, Satkowiak's group has also responded to concerns over the need for more effective controls on the shipment of nuclear components. In the last several years, networks dedicated to the smuggling of nuclear technology and related components have been responsible for the some of the most highly publicized examples of nuclear proliferation, including those involving Libya, North Korea, and Iran. When authorities looked at how these networks operated, they found that the material was often shipped through several countries, often with limited or ineffective export controls.
This realization has resulted in a concentrated effort to raise awareness about the importance of export licensing. "If someone tries to ship equipment that potentially has anything to do with uranium or nuclear technology in the United States," Satkowiak says, "the Commerce department sends the issue to DOE, and DOE sends it to ORNL. We have several staff who are experts in uranium technologies and can provide technical expertise in these license reviews. The other part of the equation requires that our group spend a lot of time working with other countries to help them become more aware of what to look for in terms of equipment that has the potential to be used for nuclear technology." In the last two years, Satkowiak's group has conducted export license review training in 40 countries.
Another key aspect of the non-proliferation effort is securing highly enriched uranium (HEU) from dismantled weapons, research reactors, and other sources. Once secured, chemical processes are used to convert the materials to commercial nuclear reactor fuel, or low-enriched uranium (LEU). The nonproliferation group is in the fifteenth year of a 20-year program to take HEU from dismantled Russian weapons and blend it down, in Russia, to commercial reactor-grade fuel that is then sold to the United States. "We have teams that go to Russia and monitor this process," Satkowiak says, "but we also have a blend-down monitoring system, developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and ORNL, to monitor this process literally every day of the year. When ORNL staff go to Russian installations, they can immediately download the data and verify how much weapons-grade material went into the process and how much LEU came out."
The agreement with Russia committed them to blending down about 500 metric tons of nuclear material out of the Russian nuclear stockpile. To date they have blended down about 320 metric tons—about 13,000 nuclear weapons worth of material. This material provides about half of the fuel for our nuclear power plants.
A corollary component of the blend-down program is an effort to reprocess highly enriched research reactor fuel. "In the Eisenhower-era," says Satkowiak, "the United States and Russia were in a race to build multiple research reactors—a lot of them powered by HEU. Our group has been working with the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return Program to retrieve fuel from a number of international locations. Once returned, the fuel is blended down to LEU, thus dramatically reducing the risk of proliferation. We have ORNL staff involved in the removal of the fuel and throughout the blend-down process, effectively eliminating any risk of bomb-grade material being diverted," Satkowiak says.
Nuclear nonproliferation is increasingly viewed as a problem to be addressed globally, rather than just by the "nuclear powers." Nonetheless, the remaining issues are daunting in both their scope and potential consequences. The magnitude of the challenge is starkly illustrated by Satkowiak's description of the physical size of the threat. "The plutonium required for a nuclear weapon would fit inside a soft drink can," he says. "The highly enriched uranium needed for a terrorist to build a nuclear weapon would fit inside a grapefruit." Despite the challenge, he remains optimistic. "Even though, on a day-to-day basis, the progress may be incremental, over the last ten years we have made significant progress in securing these materials. There's still much to do, but it's a good area to be in. We are making a difference."
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