The Ultimate Threat

ORNL technologies seek to keep nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands.

Few activities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are more important, and at the same time less visible, than the effort to protect the world's inventory of nuclear materials. ORNL's Global Security & Nonproliferation (GS&N) program is assigned responsibilities ranging from nonproliferation and uranium fuel cycle research to detection technologies and nuclear forensics. "Our program works with the Department of Energy, the defense community, customs, law enforcement organizations, and other government agencies on projects designed to counter the nuclear threat and the threat of proliferation," says GS&N Director Larry Satkowiak. "We cover the waterfront in the world of nonproliferation, from basic research and development to 'boots-on-the-ground' implementation." To make the most of the laboratory's capabilities, GS&N dedicates a team to understanding the unique problems encountered by federal agencies responsible for nuclear security and identifying potential solutions from research conducted by dozens of scientists across the laboratory.

ORNL's nonproliferation program played a key role in 2004 in removing 1.8 metric tons of high-risk material from Libya.

Reducing the threat

Satkowiak points to work in Ukraine, where ORNL staff has helped move highly enriched nuclear fuel from Soviet-era research reactors and repatriated it to Russia, where the bomb-grade material is blended down and transformed into low-enriched fuel for reuse in reactors, including several in the United States. In addition to assisting with the removal, GS&N sends scientists to Russia on a monthly basis to monitor the blend-down process. Many of these research reactors date to the 1950s, when the Soviets supported nuclear research in much the same way as the U.S. Atoms for Peace program. Growing concerns about the ability of terrorist groups and hostile governments to gain access to nuclear materials have motivated both Russia and the U.S. to expand efforts to recover the large quantities of spent fuel stored at these facilities located in several countries. Satkowiak's program has helped to repatriate fuel from both U.S. and former Soviet programs, significantly reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation through cooperation of the world's two leading nuclear powers.

Because highly enriched fuel can be adapted for use in nuclear weapons, the Russians are in the process of converting many of their older research reactors to operate using low-enriched fuel. Much of the used fuel being repatriated to Russia from former Soviet republics has been stored for more than 30 years at reactor sites, where since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, security has often been less than adequate. Moving this weapons-grade material to Russia greatly reduces the risk of the fuel being stolen or purchased by parties seeking to construct nuclear or radiological weapons.

Operations like the one in Ukraine are highly sensitive, both in terms of the assets being handled and relationships between the governments involved. Satkowiak stresses that such delicate projects are cooperative in nature and that ORNL is just one of many U.S. and international partners. "We don't package the fuel," he explains, "but we oversee the packaging. We don't transport the fuel, but we make sure the transportation is adequate. We also assist the Russians in developing low-enriched replacement fuels for these reactors."

Nuclear fuel recovery operations are a good example of how nations work together out of the spotlight to address one of the world's most serious security problems by converting high-risk material to something of lasting benefit. "This is the same program that removed 1.8 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride and over 500 metric tons of centrifuge components and related materials from Libya in 2004," Satkowiak adds. "We are trying to replicate the Libyan success wherever we can by reducing the risk of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands."

Nuclear fingerprints

Another critical research area in which ORNL offers a broad suite of capabilities is the nuclear fuel cycle. The laboratory's ability include identifying the physical (including chemical and radiological) "fingerprints" associated with every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from production to reprocessing to final disposition. This sort of critical knowledge can enable nuclear inspectors to detect evidence of unauthorized nuclear fuel reprocessing on equipment or in the environment. Of course, increasing the probability of detecting cheating makes it easier to hold nations to their agreements with regard to the reprocessing of nuclear fuel.

"We ask ourselves what we can learn using the technologies we already have," says Jeff Johnson, project manager for GS&N's Nuclear Threat Research and Development Initiative, "as well as what technologies we can develop to enable us to see those signatures better—from a distance, remotely or during an inspection." Much of the research conducted at ORNL in support of the nonproliferation program is designed to detect progressively lower quantities of nuclear material. This capability enables researchers to see through the background noise, such as chemicals in the environment, to detect proliferation activity.

Johnson describes a logical progression in the development of detection technologies. First, one of ORNL's R&D programs performs fundamental research to determine which chemical signatures can be detected that would indicate that the presence of nuclear reprocessing. The process is tested in the laboratory, then in a prototype, and finally in a field-deployable system. Johnson says that throughout the testing researchers pose a number of questions, including the type of platform on which the technology will be deployed. "There's an engineering challenge combined with many of our technologies. This often involves determining how we can make a system small enough, light enough, or efficient enough for a particular use." Johnson's Nuclear Threat R&D Initiative addresses the detection technology needs of several government organizations including the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Department of Defense's Defense Threat Reduction Agency and others.

GS&N has also been called upon to provide support f or the NNSA's Office of the Second Line of Defense and one of its two components—the Megaports Initiative. The objective of this initiative is to develop and evaluate radiation monitors for use at international shipping ports. With approximately one-half of the goods shipped to the United States originating in China, Megaports approached Chinese officials about using radiation monitors located at these shipping facilities. The Chinese agreed but chose to produce and use their own monitors made to U.S. specifications. Prototype units were provided to ORNL for extensive testing. Now deployed in a number of Chinese ports, the radiation portal monitors are evidence that China, like most nations, is prepared to join the international effort to restrict the movement of nuclear material.

From a U.S. perspective, the primary value of the Megaports Initiative is the ability to intercept shipments of nuclear materials before they reach U.S. friends and allies and ultimately the U.S. homeland. With some cargo ships holding as many as 20,000 containers, an individual container becomes a veritable needle in a haystack. Detecting a single container of nuclear material on a fully loaded ship is extremely difficult, particularly in a port as busy as Long Beach, the second busiest port in the United States. The challenge of locating hidden nuclear materials on a fully loaded ship combined with the extraordinary consequences of failing to find a nuclear bomb have motivated efforts at ORNL to develop technologies and procedures to monitor containers when they are loaded and before they dock at U.S. ports.

The threat continues

Despite the unquestionable success of GS&N's efforts in the areas of nuclear nonproliferation and detection technologies, Satkowiak cautions against the temptation to believe that we have resolved the nuclear security threat. "If anything, the international attention focused on the nuclear threat is increasing, so the demand for our capabilities continues to grow." Satkowiak warns that even if the nations with nuclear capabilities achieve the goal of "global lockdown" of nuclear materials—putting all potential nuclear materials beyond the reach of terrorists or unstable regimes—the need would still exist for nonproliferation efforts to control the transfer of the technology required to produce nuclear material and nuclear weapons.

"Rogue nation states and terrorist groups will continue to pursue nuclear weapons technology," Satkowiak adds. "The nuclear terrorism threat will always be out there—however, so will we."