ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- In 1994, a band of criminals threatened to blow up a nuclear power plant if their friends weren't released immediately from a Lithuanian jail.
Though the power plant, Ignalina, provided 87 percent of Lithuania's electricity, the government was forced to shut down the plant's Chernobyl-style reactors to search for explosives.
To forestall future extortion attempts, the government sought international help.
For this reason - and the larger concern that nuclear materials could be stolen for use in weapons - engineers and technicians from Sandia National Laboratories are in the former Soviet Union at 44 sites, 30 of them in Russia.
The idea is to protect weapons-useable nuclear materials against theft, extortion, or physical takeovers by criminals or terrorists, both at nuclear sites and during transport to other locations.
"There's an element of urgency in protecting this material," says Rebecca Horton, one of the leaders of the Sandia effort, "given the significant economic and political changes these countries are undergoing. "
The work, performed in conjunction with engineers from other national laboratories, is budgeted for approximately $112 million for fiscal year 1997. Projects are ongoing.
The technical assistance program is a priority of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Material Protection, Control, and Accounting programs. The name sounds bureaucratic, but the emotions and precautions involved are complex enough to fill the pages of novelists.
The programs were developed over the last five years in agreements between governments, agencies or laboratories, under the oversight of the DOE.
At the Lithuanian power station, Sandia engineers led construction of an inspection pit area somewhat similar to that of a 10-minute oil change bay. Incoming vehicles must drive through the bay, where they are checked from below for bombs.
In addition, sensors detect intruders entering the area on foot. Video monitors, cameras, and an upgraded central alarm warn of intruders in protected areas within the plant. Hand-held radios help the guard force communicate. Aluminum-covered wooden doors are gone, replaced with steel doors. Radiation monitors at exits scan workers for pilfered nuclear materials.
Sandia completed the system installation of the project in August 1996.
Sandia efforts also have:
- completed a "quick fix" - announced in January 1997 by officials of the republic of Georgia - at a nuclear research reactor to hinder theft of nuclear fuel rods. Each rod is as thick as a pencil, as long as a yardstick, and convertible into weapons-grade fissionable material. The project, begun in January 1996 and completed in two months, included installation of a massive brick obelisk, about three feet on a side and as tall as the door it guards, to prevent the door from being easily opened and fuel rods pilfered. The project is meant to provide temporary security until a more far-reaching agreement is concluded between Russia and Georgia.
- worked jointly with an enterprise known as Eleron, in Moscow, to create an automated security system prototype for nuclear materials being transported. In September 1996, 40 high-ranking Russians were given a rail car tour that climaxed with the activation of two advanced mechanisms that would delay any infiltrators attempting to take over the car.
- completed the first system for protecting significant quantities of weapons-useable nuclear material at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow - a preeminent physics institute of Russia - in December 1994.
According to Vladimir Sukhoruchkin, head of the division of internal projects for the Institute, "The cooperation and financial support by Sandia National Laboratories... makes our world a little bit safer [by helping] us considerably improve physical security of dangerous nuclear materials at the Kurchatov Institute ."
Simple preventive actions include bricking up windows, removing rubble, trees, and other natural and artificial structures within tens of feet of security fences, improving security procedures, and providing training in modern material protection equipment for local security forces.
"We realize that some of the improvements we're making are radically different from the types of security systems with which technicians in the former Soviet Union are familiar, and it may be hard for them to fully understand what we're doing," says Sandia's Mark Soo Hoo, one of the first Americans sent to Eastern Europe three years ago to begin securing the nuclear materials.
To make sure the materials will remain secure after American support is reduced, Sandia provides training on operating, testing, and maintaining the systems and also encourages local suppliers to be part of maintenance support.
"Early arrangements proved slow-moving. But scientists in the former Soviet Union believe in the need to protect the nuclear materials. When we went to work at a laboratory-to-laboratory level, our mutual efforts at protection started to work," says Horton.
Problems remain. For example, "They can't understand how we in a free society put up with background checks," says Mark. "They view background checks as a tool of a repressive society."
Since removal of the continual surveillance conducted by former internal security forces, "now there's not only no money, police or background checks but there are potential markets for nuclear materials," he says.
While Soviet guards adequately protected facilities in the past, today's increased labor costs, reduced military support, and growing black market require greater reliance on modern devices to achieve a stricter physical security.
The problem now, as Sandia engineers see it, is to help these formerly Soviet countries moving toward a more democratic basis to maintain control of nuclear materials and prevent proliferation to rogue nations.
The view from home
Some Americans wonder if technical help allows Russia to use its freed-up money to pursue other nuclear weapon capabilities, says Horton.
In the opinion of Sandia manager J. D. Williams, "I'm sure American citizens wondered at the end of World War II why the US was spending its money to rebuild Germany and Japan. They wondered until they saw what good trading partners the former enemies became. It wasn't the people we were concerned about, it was their governments. Russia and the Newly Independent States also have the potential of becoming great trading partners."
"It's a trade-off," says Horton. "We believe the number one national security problem at the present time is the threat of proliferation of nuclear materials. That threat outweighs by orders of magnitude the threat that freed-up monies will be used for military purposes."
The cooperative program provides safgeguards that technologies are used to secure nuclear materials and not for military purposes.
Sandia's involvement in this area is based on more than 30 years of experience in nuclear material, weapons, and facility security and protection. Sandia engineers have worked at more than 300 facilities in 38 countries. While Sandia takes a lead role in providing physical security at potentially at-risk nuclear sites, other U.S. national laboratories play lead roles in numerically accounting for fissionable material, as well as other important material control measures. Other nations, notably Japan and Sweden, have also provided personnel and material assistance.
Sandia is a multiprogram DOE laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy, and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.
Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy.
Neal Singer, email@example.com (505) 845-7078