Protecting Against Nuclear Threats
Los Alamos' mission is to solve national security challenges through scientific excellence.
- Los Alamos National Laboratory
- (505) 667-5061
Robust solutions to most urgent and technically challenging national security issues
Los Alamos protects our nation against the nuclear threat—emerging, proliferant, or unconventional—regardless of origin.
We exercise our abilities in nonproliferation and counterproliferation to interdict the spread of nuclear technology to emerging nuclear states.
We also use these abilities to protect against unconventional transnational threats and support counterterrorism and emergency response to nuclear related events.
We can address each of the interrelated phases in the notional history of a potential nuclear event, from motivation and planning through post-event response and recovery and forensic analysis, as seen in the figure below. This analysis spans program and mission activities across the DOE, DoD, and IC and strengthens our ability to successfully execute our mission.
Our strength in responding to threats derives from the synergy between our Weapons and Global Security programs. We apply our core weapons expertise to assess foreign weapons and nuclear programs and threats posed by improvised nuclear devices. Global Security programs also leverage industrial partnerships, particularly for moving ideas into innovations, fielded systems, and products.
The need to respond rapidly with accurate analysis and effective technology is increasing
As national threats grow more asymmetric and technology and information are more universally accessible to our adversaries, the need to respond immediately and effectively to threats is essential.
The many and varied ways that we respond
- Los Alamos provides quick responses to requests from the DoD and IC for information, analysis, and potential solutions to support their decision making and actions across the spectrum of national security threats. Specific examples include military warfighter support, space defense, and rapid prototype deployment. As a member of the IC through the Los Alamos Field Intelligence Element, we rapidly and knowledgably engage in all of these activities.
- Los Alamos supplies the technical backbone to national and international efforts to understand and limit nuclear proliferation, including effective national technical means to verify compliance with nuclear test ban treaties.
- We provided the detection instrumentation in the first satellite to monitor a nuclear treaty more than 50 years ago, and we will continue to provide the majority of space-based sensing capabilities needed to keep satellite monitoring systems up to the challenge of changing threats.
- Los Alamos scientists are at the forefront of geophysical research to improve the global capability to detect and locate seismic and infrasonic events, identify them as natural or man-made, and estimate the energy release of such events.
- This research enables the U.S. treaty monitoring mission and supports the International Data Centre under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty organization.
- Los Alamos develops transformational technologies to better recognize nuclear and radiological threats.
- We lead the nation’s efforts to strengthen the capabilities of allies and other countries to deter, detect, and interdict illicit trafficking of nuclear materials at international border crossings.
- We also provide technical solutions and support to improve our national ability to detect these materials.
- Los Alamos assists with security coverage of National Special Security Events, including presidential inaugurations, national political conventions, and major sporting events by providing radiological search, area monitoring, and analysis and assessment.
- Our counterterrorism portfolio includes the development of tools, tactics and procedures, training, event response, forensics, and consequence management for responding to potential nuclear terrorist activities.
- In particular, we provide nuclear and radiological emergency response teams composed of volunteer Los Alamos employees. These teams are deployed anywhere in the world under severe conditions and short timelines.
An array of threats have emerged since the end of the Cold War
These threats include
- weakened control over nuclear materials and expertise from the former Soviet Union
- proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the more lethal aims of today's terrorists
- emergence of "rogue states" threatening U.S. interests, regional stability
Recent achievements & research breakthroughs
Improved detection of hazards
One of the gravest threats the United States and its allies face is the acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction by terrorists or rogue nations. Los Alamos National Laboratory provides technologies and expertise that systematically strengthen the capability to detect and interdict illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials across international borders. Deployment of radiation detection instrumentation at border crossings, rail crossings, airports, and post offices is part of this effort.
Aboard Mars mission
Three Los Alamos National Laboratory technologies are aboard the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s Curiosity rover:
- Los Alamos radioisotope batteries are providing power and heat to Curiosity and are driving the vehicle’s 10 scientific instruments.
- One technology, known as ChemCam, is mounted on the rover’s mast and will use extremely powerful pulses of light to vaporize pinhead-sized areas of the martian surface to provide scientists with crucial information about the composition of Mars surface materials.
- CheMin, is designed to use x-ray diffraction to determine the composition of samples that are collected and dropped into a funnel on the rover.
Los Alamos National Laboratory provides continuous treaty verification support, including support for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Reducing proliferation threats with IAEA
The Lab’s expertise in nuclear materials technologies has played a significant role in mitigating proliferation in multiple areas. The expertise spans more than 40 years of direct support to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including the development of nearly every nuclear materials assay technology, training for every IAEA inspector, and more than 50 ongoing safeguards technology development projects.
Converting weapons-grade plutonium for use in nuclear power
Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to employ Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES) technologies to convert weapons-grade plutonium to blended mixed oxides for use in commercial nuclear power reactors.
Defeating threats to the Navy
Los Alamos National Laboratory successfully tested a new high-current electron injector, a device that can be scaled up to produce the electrons needed to build a high-power-free-electron laser prototype for the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Operating at the speed of light, the free-electron laser will protect the U.S. Navy’s fleet of the future by defeating multiple incoming missiles in different maritime environments with a high-power beam of wavelength-tunable light.
Minimizing global radiological hazards
The Air Force Technical Applications Center acknowledged a Los Alamos technical team for its outstanding technical analysis of radiological samples and consequence management support following the earthquake- and tsunami-induced damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The results were critical in helping the United States and Japan determine options for minimizing the impact of radiological hazards on the global population and environment.