- Program Director
Greg Van Tuyle
Countering Weapons of Mass Effect
U.S. officials think there is a high probability that a terrorist attack involving Weapons of Mass Effect (WME) will occur somewhere in the world in the next five to ten years. A singular nuclear weapon or WME that falls into the hands of an undeterable adversary would have immeasurable impact on U.S. national security.
Senior al-Qaeda officials have made it clear that they wish to obtain a nuclear weapon—viewed by them as a religious duty—and use it against the United States. Moreover, the current conflict in Pakistan highlights the potential of a “failed state” or malicious insider scenario that could provide terrorists with such weapons. North Korea’s history of arms sales, in conjunction with this state’s recent admission of a secret uranium-enrichment program and a history of violating United Nations' resolutions, raises the specter of nuclear terrorism to an even stronger focus.
Longstanding nonproliferation efforts may not prevent terrorists or state actors from acquiring the materials needed to build a WME. Reasons include (1) the alarming rates at which WME programs continue to progress, (2) the spread of knowledge, and (3) the frequency by which such materials emerge on the black market. LANL’s objective is to enable the United States to be in a position in which it can anticipate all WME methodologies, identify those who would desire to employ them, and stop or render such actors ineffective.
As the birthplace of nuclear weapons, LANL holds a unique place in the nuclear weapons program, particularly in the ability of its scientists and engineers to apply broad scientific capabilities in chemistry, biology, radiation and radioactive materials, and explosives to characterize, design, and develop technologies that counter WME. As a result of helping create and support the nuclear stockpile, LANL has acquired a unique set of capabilities to which only two national laboratories in the U.S. can lay claim:
- World’s Fastest Computers: LANL uses these computers to run specialized software codes, which scientists apply to modeling and analyzing potential threats from which they then can develop effective countermeasures. LANL’s unique computer and modeling resources are also used for predictive and situational awareness modeling, which when coupled with a strong intelligence analysis capability, enables Los Alamos to identify and quantify possible WME threats and develop solutions for detection and interdiction.
- Expertise in Radiological Materials: When combined with LANL’s broad materials science and explosives-science capabilities garnered from the weapons program, Los Alamos’ extensive experience with radiological materials and their properties enables scientists to develop detection and upstream defeat technologies. LANL is one of the few facilities in the world that can safely handle any radionuclide in effectively any quantity—it also has developed the methods to analyze trace quantities to determine their origin. Los Alamos also has unmatched capabilities in understanding criticality, which enables scientists to characterize material threats and develop the means to handle and neutralize them.
- Explosives Experimental Facilities: These small- and large-scale explosives facilities enable LANL researchers to conduct experiments that validate computer models and bolster the confidence of end developers who have created countermeasures for WME technologies.
- Biological Forensics: LANL has extensive forensic capabilities that can be used to detect and identify chemical and biological agents. Los Alamos’ world-renowned genomics and genome databases contain mountains of information gained from sequencing and analysis of pathogens for detection, surveillance, and forensics. LANL also has specialized knowledge in the areas of signatures and assays for pathogen detection, strain discrimination, and attribution.