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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 55, No. 9        May 2, 2003
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

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Sandia's Yucca Mountain contributions Sky scanner could detect bio attack Labs, San Francisco International Airport collaborate on chem/bio study



Sandia at Yucca Mountain Project: Providing data for hard decisions

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By Will Keener

Sandia scientists -- in the lab and inside Yucca Mountain -- are conducting important experiments for the proposed geologic repository in Nevada that will permanently store America's high-level radioactive waste.

"Sandia's strength is in testing," says Cliff Howard, manager of the Labs' Yucca Mountain Project (YMP) Repository Test and Analysis Dept. 6855. "We're good at it, both in the field and in the lab. And the data we are developing are fed to modelers, who are working on the project's performance assessment."

Cliff, who spent 14 years in Carlsbad working in the test group on the Waste Isolation Pilot

Project, knows whereof he speaks. Although he is quick to point out that YMP is an altogether different project (see "Different waste, different regulators . . ." on page 6), Cliff notes that Sandia's reputation and respect have grown steadily at the Nevada site by dint of its quality testing results.

Project managers Bechtel-SAIC have come to value Sandia's work on the project as they move forward with a complex effort to provide needed evidence to back up a repository license application. The application is due at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by late 2004.

"Because natural systems are inherently uncertain, the tests and analyses we conduct are designed to support a risk-informed decision process," Cliff explains, driving north on US Highway 95 from Las Vegas toward the Nevada Test Site, where Yucca Mountain is located. "We are asking ourselves 'What are the chances of a certain scenario occurring?' and then 'What are the consequences of that?'"

Sandia has done experiments that will answer parts of the puzzle when fitted together with the work of other experimenters at the Experimental Studies Facility, the name given to the cluster of experimental alcoves along the main tunnel drift and to the support structures at the two tunnel portals. Sandia's testing has focused on the mechanical and thermal response of the rock to heat and pressure, Cliff explains.

Much of the work in the project for managers like Cliff and his boss Andrew Orrell (6850) involves meeting with other team members to make sure experiments are on track, quality assurance issues are being addressed, and the architecture of having multiple teams feeding data for modeling repository performance and providing design information continues to be robust.

To make such a meeting later this day, Cliff gets started before 5 a.m., picking up a visitor and heading for Yucca Mountain. As the desert flows past and the sun peeks over a range of mountains to the east, he is discussing the unique challenges posed by volcanic tuff, a dense, welded ash that showered down on the site 12 million years ago.

"The plan for YMP is that it will be in an active operating mode for about 75 years. We have to be able to answer questions about mechanical stability and worker protection in the mine. How many rock bolts will we need to use? What about wire mesh? What other structures and components are needed to operate in the underground environment to emplace radioactive waste packages weighing in excess of 90,000 pounds? In order to build a safety case you'd normally go to civil project experience from the mining of tunnels and other similar work. But mining isn't done in volcanics and there are few civil projects to turn to for analogs. There's almost nothing out there that's comparable, so you can't go to a textbook to consult."

Instead, experiments must provide the values to plug gaps in the knowledge base.

At a building just outside the north portal of the Yucca Mountain drift, nearly 100 miners, experimenters, and support staff have gathered for the 7 a.m. safety and operational briefing. To get this far -- to the verge of a trip into the tunnel -- visitors must have been trained in general underground and radon safety and the operation of a self-rescue device, to be used in the event of a fire inside the tunnel. It's clear at the briefing that safety is important in this operational environment. "Radon readings are high near the south portal and may require respirators," a foreman informs the assemblage. A radioactive gas that is found in many places, radon can be encountered in higher-than-normal concentrations in the YMP tunnels, requiring precautions.

After strapping on a belt with the self-rescuer and a battery-powered lamp, which attaches to his hardhat, Cliff is ready for a trip inside the mountain. Visitors carry a card, showing they have received safety briefings and a radon dosimeter. Paperwork to ensure accountability for all workers is also a part of the process. Soon in a diesel-powered, open mining car, Cliff joins other workers rolling into the five-mile-long drift.

The main drift is 25-feet in diameter, generally horizontal, and carves a U-shape through the mountain. A 16-foot cross-drift has also been bored off the main tunnel into the rock horizon where most of the wastes will be stored. At the top of the tunnel bore runs a large-diameter air duct. A conveyor belt, used to carry "muck" or rock debris from the boring machine during the three-year drilling effort, runs down one wall. Along the other wall, thick high-voltage cables snake their way into the drift.

Just beyond the cross drift, the train comes to a stop at Alcove 5. Here two key Sandia experiments were conducted. To determine how heat will influence the rock, experimenters placed a heater, powered by several thousand watts, into a small bore and measured heat flow in the surrounding rock. "This helps us calculate the thermal conductivity of the rock," says Cliff.

Further down into the alcove, technicians are at work near a group of small bores that surround a large heated room. A bank of high-voltage control panels stands nearby. The boreholes allow for sampling water and studying the temperature and physical response of the rock to the large cylindrical heater. This is the drift-scale test, where according to a read-out on a large signboard, the rock received more than 6.09 million kilowatt- hours of heating. Heated from December 1997 to January 2002, the room is now in the cooling phase. However, a visitor, looking into the room through thick glass windows, can still feel the heat. "It will take several years to cool down, and measurements will continue from time to time to understand that process," Cliff says.

The water samples will be critical for modeling of another phenomenon associated with the repository, possible corrosion of the waste packages. "We need to know the chemical environment inside the drift," says Cliff. In fact the rock has about 10 percent pore space. The water, which fills about 80 percent of the pore space, gets hot and moves away from heat sources. (The high-level waste containers will generate heat.) After the rock cools, the water condenses again.

Later in the morning, Cliff walks past a giant boring machine, now in storage outside the south portal, and through an unlighted portion of the main drift to examine another large-scale Sandia test. In this case, workers cut two five-foot-tall slots into the wall of the drift, about a yard apart. Experimenters placed flat jacks into each slot to essentially squeeze the rock together using hydraulics and measure its stiffness. Midway between them, a borehole filled with instruments measured changes in the rock.

"We were able to map the fractures on the surface and in the borehole between the two flat jacks. Ron Price (see "Crushing rocks . . ." on page 6) does similar work with samples that range from one inch to 12-inches. We're taking a cubic-meter-size sample here and extending his work to get the engineering properties that will help design and support systems and help us assess stability during seismic events."

Before returning to Las Vegas, Cliff takes a radio, clears with ranch control, and starts up toward the crest of Yucca Mountain in a government pickup. From the top, the classic basin and range topography spreads in all directions. There is still a lot of work ahead for Sandia on the application to NRC, he says, between bites of a rye-bread sandwich, specially made for him by his daughter, Nalin. "We have to try to finish some experiments before we lose our craft help in the tunnel. There are real hard decisions yet to be made." - - Will Keener

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Labs sky scanner can detect a cloud of germs from three miles away

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By John German

Someday soon the skies over US cities or upwind of major sporting events might be scanned for airborne biological agents using a device now under development at Sandia.

Named "Ares" after the Greek god of war, the telescopic scanner is mounted just inside the rear doors of a large passenger van.

The mobile biological weapons standoff detection system, as it's called, can be taken anywhere the concern exists that terrorists might release biological weapons agents into the air, such as anthrax, smallpox, tularemia, plague, botulinum toxin, or other bugs.

Once the van is stabilized and its rear doors opened, an ultraviolet pulsed laser mounted on a gimbal whips across a 90-degree wedge of sky once every 20 to 30 seconds, sending out 600 to 1,000 laser pulses on each pass.

A telescope and detector wired to a computerized location system follows the beam, watching for bright spots that could indicate the presence of smoke, diesel fumes, dust clouds, or something more sinister.

Bright spots

The beam more or less uniformly illuminates the floating dust and other contaminants normally present in the lower atmosphere, explains Ares developer Phil Hargis (1118). Where contaminants are concentrated in a plume, more UV light is reflected, he says.

If a cloud of aerosol particles is detected, he says, the system quickly maps its boundaries using time-of-flight information associated with the UV pulses and positional information from the gimbal and determines the location of the most concentrated portion of the cloud.

It then probes that portion of the cloud looking for the presence of biological materials.

Because biological materials naturally fluoresce, or shift the color of light they reflect when exposed to UV light, the Ares system can tell whether a cloud contains biological aerosols by looking for very specific wavelengths, or colors, of fluorescent light in the UV-illuminated cloud.

The detection, mapping, and analysis takes approximately 10 seconds.

Detect to warn

"This is a 'detect to warn' system," says proj-ect manager Al Lang (5713). "It can't identify the particular bug, but it can tell you that a cloud has bio-content so you can take protective action."

The Ares prototype system works best out to about three miles, he says.

Currently no standoff detection capability exists either on the battlefield or in the homeland security community, he adds.

The Department of Defense is evaluating the capabilities of several developmental systems, including Ares, during a series of field tests this month at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

Dugway specializes in creating plumes of airborne particulates and biological simulants with well-characterized optical signatures.

The detection hardware also could be mounted on the rooftop of a building for more permanent applications, says Al.

Noisy environments

The Sandia prototype device, built from commercially available components to keep costs down, seems rather straightforward on its surface, Al says.

But the technical challenge lies in discriminating between the normal airborne contaminants, such as plumes of diesel exhaust and pollens, from deadly biological particulates, and doing so with very few false alarms.

"It's straightforward in a scientific sense, but it is a whole lot more difficult to get it to work reliably in environments where you'd expect a lot of noise, including urban and battlefield environments," he says.

The Sandia team has been field-testing the system night and day with a variety of simulants, including floating flour and dust, in the sky over a remote area near Sandia's 10,000-foot sled track in Area 3.

The Dugway test series, which began Monday, is evaluating each system's ability to detect and discriminate among several types and concentrations of contaminant plumes, he says.

The Ares system is expected to meet the DoD's operational requirements, he says.

Negotiations are underway with a private company to develop a cooperative research and development agreement that would result in the Ares technology being commercialized for both the military and homeland security sectors.

Sandia has been working on the basic technology for the Ares system since about 1993, says Al. But it wasn't until 9/11 and the anthrax letter mailings in fall 2001 that the National Nuclear Security Administration asked the Sandia team to focus on biological standoff detection for homeland security applications.

The project is funded by the NNSA's Office of Nonproliferation Research and Engineering.

Sandians from both the New Mexico and California sites have supported the Ares project. The following centers have been directly involved: 1100, 2300, 5700, 6100, 8100, 8300, 8400, and 8900. - - John German

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San Francisco International Airport unveils chem/bio defense collaboration with Sandia

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By nancy Garcia

Calling himself "very pleased and excited," San Francisco International Airport spokesman Mike McCarron praised "the wonderful relationship" with Sandia that has led to the first testing of chemical and biological defense at a major international airport.

Speaking at a press conference that unveiled the airport's response capability, McCarron said, "What began as an informal conversation has evolved into a four-year working relationship. We've been the testbed for some of their latest and greatest technology."

Likewise, Duane Lindner (8101), deputy director for chem/bio defense programs, acknowledged the airport's "foresight and fabulous cooperation long before Sept. 11."

Sandians from both the California and New Mexico sites are working with the airport to evaluate detection and response systems for chemical or biological attack. These, Duane said, "would allow a very early warning and quick response plan so passengers could be moved out of harm's way or be treated" (in the event of a biological attack).

Once contamination is spotted, added McCarron, response options include evacuation or isolating air flow. Under evaluation are chemical detectors and detectors being developed to spot biological agents.

The research is an outgrowth of work with the Washington, D.C., Metro, begun in 1997 with Argonne National Laboratory, to characterize chemical detection systems in a subway setting. That sensor system is now entering operation at several stations.

The San Francisco airport work goes by the acronym PROACT, for Protective and Responsive Options for Airport Counter-Terrorism. This demonstration and application program originally began in DOE's Chemical and Biological National Security Program and now continues under the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.

"We believe the work will provide comprehensive insights to allow similar systems to be deployed elsewhere," said Duane. "The real learning has been in understanding how to put together systems that can be used in an end-to-end defensive capability."

The initial impetus for the Metro program was the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. "It was obvious that transportation nodes were attractive to terrorists," Duane said.

Calling the demonstration program "a huge work in progress," McCarron pointed out that the airport is also equipped to employ Sandia's decontamination foam, marketed commercially as "Decon 200." The foam is awaiting FDA approval for decontamination of people but can be used to decontaminate facilities.

Dale Dunham, head of emergency planning at the airport, showed reporters a bus that had been customized to support decontamination operations at the airport. The unit can be used to decontaminate both facilities and up to 1,800 people an hour. Nozzles and hoses mounted on the front of the bus spray foam, then shower heads that extend from each side of the bus rinse people with warm water. At the rear, blankets, towels or ponchos are distributed.

Reporters also toured a new emergency operations center, opened in February, that is 12 times the size of the old one. Plans for that center were set in motion after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which shook up the facility and stretched capacity of the former emergency operations center.

-- Nancy Garcia

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Last modified: May 5 , 2003

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