Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Delivering science and technology to protect our nation and promote world stability

Protecting Against Nuclear Threats

The Laboratory's mission is to solve national security challenges through scientific excellence.

July 9, 2018
This specialized laser instrument allows Los Alamos scientists to perform sophisticated nuclear experiments and gather significant amounts of data without a critical mass of plutonium.

This specialized laser instrument allows Los Alamos scientists to perform sophisticated nuclear experiments and gather significant amounts of data without a critical mass of plutonium.

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Our mission: Providing early identification, cutting edge innovation, and timely delivery of scientifically robust solutions to the most urgent and technically challenging national security issues.

State-of-the-art solutions to our country’s most compelling and technically challenging national security needs

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) actively protects our nation against the nuclear threat—emerging, proliferant, or unconventional—regardless of origin. The Laboratory exercises its unique capabilities and expertise in nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and counterterrorism to prevent the unwanted dissemination and/or use of nuclear technology. In addition, Los Alamos National Laboratory maintains a highly specialized operational team that is trained and prepared for all phases of nuclear emergency response.

The Laboratory’s scientists and researchers have the necessary expertise and ingenuity to address each phase of a nuclear event - from initial detection, diagnosis, and planning through post-event response, recovery, and forensic analysis. This analysis spans program and mission activities across the Intelligence Community and the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, and strengthens our ability to successfully execute our mission

DOE Forensics Operations (DFO) team members collecting radiological samples in support of Nuclear Technical Forensics
DOE Forensics Operations (DFO) team members collecting radiological samples in support of Nuclear Technical Forensics.

Rapid Response

Providing highly trained response teams coupled with extensive reach back support from subject matter experts on their team, the Laboratory supports the nation in nuclear emergency response. As national threats grow more asymmetric, and technology and information are more universally accessible to our adversaries, the ability to respond to nuclear threats immediately and effectively is essential.

The Laboratory offers expertise, practical tools, and state of the art technology for the nuclear counterterrorism, incident response, nuclear forensics, and counterproliferation objectives for the nation. Our scientists and researchers excel in understanding nuclear threat devices including improvised nuclear devices, foreign nuclear weapons of proliferate concern, and any device that may have fallen outside of a foreign state’s custody. The Laboratory’s response team provides the capabilities that make the National Nuclear Security Administration the premier technical leader in responding to and successfully resolving nuclear and radiological threats worldwide.

The first two Cobalt-60 source containers awaiting OSRP shipment from São Paolo, Brazil
The first two Cobalt-60 source containers awaiting OSRP shipment from São Paolo, Brazil.

Offsite Source Recovery Program

Los Alamos National Laboratory leads the Offsite Source Recovery Program (OSRP) for the recovery of domestic and international sealed radioactive sources in the interest of national security and public health and safety. Since 1997, we have been working to remove these radioactive sealed sources from industrial, educational, healthcare, and government facilities worldwide. OSRP also supports training on radioactive source search and secure techniques to other countries’ regulatory authorities and first responders. Laboratory staff also supports the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with expert missions to various countries to assist in collecting information to complete national inventories and develop national strategies for disused sources.

IAEA Safeguards inspection at Urenco uranium enrichment plant. The Netherlands. (Photo courtesy of IAEA.)
IAEA Safeguards inspection at Urenco uranium enrichment plant. The Netherlands. (Photo courtesy of IAEA.)

Fifty years of Nuclear Safeguards

International nuclear safeguards trace their roots back to the Los Alamos National Laboratory and its development of the first atomic bomb during World War II. Since then, much of our work has focused on preventing proliferation - finding ways to keep nuclear materials secure and out of the hands of would-be proliferators, while not hindering peaceful uses that are critical for energy, medical, and other important needs. Safeguards do just that.

Safeguards are about verifying that nuclear material and nuclear facilities are not being used for nuclear weapons purposes. Because our scientist, researchers and engineers have been the premier experts for the past 75 years in the development of nuclear technologies, the Laboratory has unique expertise when it comes to all things nuclear. It takes a weapons lab to find a weapons lab.

LANL’s fully deployed CubeSat, which folds up smaller than a breadbox during launch, has opened up new possibilities in space for scientific and national security missions
LANL’s fully deployed CubeSat, which folds up smaller than a breadbox during launch, has opened up new possibilities in space for scientific and national security missions.

Space-based Assets

Agile space systems are a critical tool for national security customers. Our scientists and engineers develop and deploy data collections and communication systems in response to those needs. The Laboratory continues to conduct new research aimed at future advancements in Space-based Nuclear Detonation Detection (SNDD); in particular, work continues on the Distributed Infrastructure Offering Real-time Access to Modeling and Analysis (DIORAMA), a computer modeling and simulation system that captures knowledge about nuclear detonation source term modeling, propagation of weapons outputs and effects in the atmosphere and space, sensor performance, and scenarios that can use this information in analyses of sensor and system performance.  An initial version of this code system was completed and released to the SNDD community, and is being formally validated by a semi-independent team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Recent achievements & research breakthroughs

An artist’s depiction of SuperCam in action on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. SuperCam adds two new mineralogy techniques and a microphone to the techniques already being used by ChemCam
An artist’s depiction of SuperCam in action on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. SuperCam adds two new mineralogy techniques and a microphone to the techniques already being used by ChemCam.

Operating on Mars

Los Alamos National Laboratory has built more than 500 instruments for space, mostly for the purpose of nuclear treaty verification. LANL's work with NASA dovetails with this mission, helping to maintain space expertise while exploiting the science of novel analytical signatures.  

Three Laboratory technologies are aboard the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012. One instrument, known as ChemCam, is mounted on the rover’s mast and uses 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. Commands are generated daily at the Laboratory and sent to the surface of the red planet to operate ChemCam, which has returned more than half a million spectra. A second instrument, CheMin, was co-developed by a LANL geologist and is designed to use x-ray diffraction to determine the composition of samples that are collected and dropped into a funnel on the rover. And finally, Laboratory radioisotope batteries are providing power and heat to Curiosity and are driving the vehicle’s 10 scientific instruments. As of 2018, all of these technologies are still operating on the Curiosity rover, which has traveled nearly 20 kilometers.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is now helping NASA prepare its next rover to meet a 2020 launch deadline, once again with three technologies. The Laboratory’s radioisotope batteries will once again provide power for the Mars 2020 rover. The SuperCam instrument, ChemCam’s successor, applies its laser technology to investigate both chemistry and mineralogy with three additional techniques, all in a package the same size and weight as ChemCam. It fires two different colors of laser beam—red and green – and can perform rasters with the laser, as implied by the multiple green beams. As with its predecessor, SuperCam is led by LANL and includes a major contribution from the French Space Agency. The SHERLOC instrument, mounted on the rover’s arm, will focus on searching for and investigating organic materials on the red planet using Raman spectroscopy. SHERLOC is a collaboration between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Lighthouse Project Saddlebags robot in operation at the commemorative ground-zero pylon at Trinity Site
Lighthouse Project Saddlebags robot in operation at the commemorative ground-zero pylon at Trinity Site.

Lighthouse Directional Radiation Detectors

The novel Lighthouse Directional Radiation Detectors are a broad class of radiation detectors that use differential attenuation to reveal the vector components of a radiation field. The name Lighthouse Detector comes from the moving field of view, scanning through a solid angle similar to the beam of light emitted from a lighthouse. In practice, these detectors function much like an old-fashioned TV antenna, producing a peak measurement when the detector is pointed at a radiation source. The detectors’ directionality, speed, and sensitivity afford applications in site survey, assay, inventory, security, situation awareness, process controls, and materials control and accountability. Directional radiation measurements are useful for identifying the locations and movements of radioactive materials. Directional measurements can verify the location of materials in storage, indicate the movements of materials through portals and along paths, verify the quantities of materials in containers or in use, activate alarms when materials are moved into prohibited areas, and even reveal the locations of contaminants at waste sites. Another application, verifying that an area is free of radioactive materials, is no less significant. By looking for and not finding the signatures characteristic of such materials, Lighthouse Detectors provide proof positive that a space is free of contaminants.


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