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Lab News -- Nov. 20, 2009

Nov. 20, 2009

LabNews 11/20/2009PDF (1.5 Mb)

Sandia technology comprehensively supports CTBT

By Neal Singer


Somewhere in the world on Oct. 9, 2006, a low-yield nuclear device exploded underground.

In 48 hours, the sensors of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty’s (CTBT) International Monitoring System (IMS) — globally distributed — were able to pinpoint the location of the blast to an underground area in North Korea only 10 kilometers across.

The ability to detect and quickly pinpoint the location of the relatively small explosion — many times smaller than the Hiroshima bomb — suggests that any gaps in worldwide sensing capabilities have diminished greatly over the past decade, say Sandians involved in global efforts to detect nuclear explosions wherever they may occur.

Joe Sanders (5924) examines the shell of a next-generation airborne radionuclide particle collection pod designed at Sandia. The podís sensors detect short-lived radionuclides released into the atmosphere in the wake of an underground nuclear detonation. The modernized system replaces technology dating from the 1950s and 1960s. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

This year, in response to President Barack Obama’s April 5 speech in Prague in which he stated that his administration would seek CTBT ratification “aggressively and immediately,” a team of five Sandians journeyed to Vienna to the CTBT Organization’s (CTBTO) International Science Studies Conference. The Sandians presented three posters that demonstrated improved technical capabilities to detect underground nuclear blasts.

“We went there,” says Tim McDonald (5736), “to reestablish our presence in an international community rejuvenated since the president expressed his determination to get the CTBT ratified. I was surprised by the intensity of the reaction to President Obama’s outreach. The interest level was astounding.”

Tim was also “very pleased with the number and quality of scientific presentations.”

The Sandians were, besides Tim, Christopher Young (5527), Sandy Ballard (5527), Joe Damico (6723), and Jim Arzigian (6723).

In addition to showing the world computationally that global sensing of an underground nuclear explosion is a reality, Sandia also is responsible for ensuring the proper installation and testing of US-sponsored CTBT International Monitoring System stations. Randy

Rembold (5736), the US configuration manager in these efforts, has a personal letter of commendation from the CTBTO to prove it.

Finally, Sandians have actively worked to improve the keystone of nuclear test confirmation: airborne sampling of nuclear debris.

‘An impressive though unusual venue’

In what Tim McDonald described as “an impressive though unusual venue” — the (former) emperor’s palace in Vienna — 400 researchers, diplomats, and foreign service personnel from many countries convened to present or review the latest methods of detecting underground nuclear explosions.

The meeting’s technical exchanges were intended to advance efforts to develop more sensitive sensors and better data processing and analysis methods. The ultimate goal is to drive explosion detection to lower and lower thresholds.

“The idea is to combine computing, signal processing, and sensors to achieve the goal of making it impossible to explode a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world without it being sensed,” says Tim. “Sandia is very much a leader in this.”

While Sandia routinely assists the National Data Center (NDC), “We’re also exploring work with the International Data Center (IDC) to help them do as good a job as they can. It’s in our national interest,” says Tim.

One Sandia poster, sponsored by NNSA’s Office of Nonproliferation and International Security (NA24), titled “Simulations of IMS Detection Effectiveness as Deployed vs. Planned,” was a kind of map intended “to show the world that we could detect an illegal test,” says lead Jim Arzigian. “We made a map to show how well we can detect explosions around the world.”

The map program is simple enough to run on a laptop. It models information obtained from the four main vehicles of remote nuclear sensing. These are hydroacoustic (water), radionuclide (radioactive materials), seismic (earth), and infrasound rumble (air).

“We had a very benign statement on our poster that we wanted to make an announcement to the international community,” Jim says.

Says Joseph Damico, “Our model integrates all four main technologies and is portable. It doesn’t need a supercomputer. It was very effective in establishing the point that this can be done and be useful.” An earlier version of the model helped determine initial placements of IMS sensors.

While the Sandia team did not discuss the latest technologies, Joseph says, the model elicited positive responses by foreign representatives, including a nation that — like the United States — has signed but not ratified the pact. Signatories that have not yet ratified include China, Israel, and Iran. Countries that have neither signed nor ratified the CTBT include North Korea, Pakistan, and India.

The poster showed that for a 10-kiloton underground explosion “both the certified stations and the full complement of stations are predicted to detect the event. The addition of the auxiliary stations to the certified stations improves the location accuracy predicted.”

Eighty percent of the agreed-upon IMS stations are now deployed and certified. Demonstrating the effectiveness of the current distribution is important because requiring more sensors will require more money and possibly different locations than the 10-year-old treaty had specified. This would open the door to unwanted new negotiations.

The second and third posters, sponsored by NNSA’s Office of Nonproliferation Research and Development (NA-22), involved enhanced methods for seismic detection.

One, hosted by Sandy Ballard, discussed improved methods of correctly modeling seismic waves passing through the Earth.

“Locating seismic events [like nuclear tests] depends on accurate knowledge of the structure of the Earth and how waves travel to reduce uncertainties in interpretation,” he says. Today’s high-performance computing capability enables 3-D simulations that provide more accurate information on wave propagation than earlier 2-D models that overly simplify the true structure of the Earth by assuming it is laterally symmetric.

Accurate interpretation of seismic events is crucial because thousands of shocks a day pass through Earth’s crust. Within this background noise, sensors and programs have had to locate the only two detected nuclear explosions that occurred during the last decade.

A third poster, “Applying Machine Learning Methods to Improve Efficiency and Effectiveness of the IDC Automatic Event Detection System,” by Christopher Young, Michael Procopio (both 5527), and Jack Gauthier (6342), described a method to improve the rapidity and effectiveness of interpreting seismic data of interest.

Sandia helps install sensing stations

More than 300 monitoring stations around the world make up the International Monitoring System that collects data for verification of the CTBT. Of these, the US is responsible for 37: five primary seismic stations, 12 auxiliary seismic stations, 11 radionuclide stations, eight infrasound stations, and one hydroacoustic station.

Randy Rembold, configuration manager for all the International Monitoring System stations in the US, received an individual acknowledgement from CTBTO Radionuclide Engineering Officer Luis Cello for Randy’s service in installing and assisting in the certification of these sensing stations.

An integration configuration manager ensures that stations meet the technical requirements of the CTBT in Vienna, allowing these stations to be certified by the CTBTO. Once so certified, the data from an IMS station can be accepted and processed by the International Data Center (IDC).

The occasion for praise was the certification of a Midway Island radionuclide particulate station that was the final US agreed-upon station to monitor radionuclide particles, “making [the US] the first nuclear-weapon state and the second of those having four or more facilities to accomplish such a goal,” wrote Cello. “Congratulations to all for the excellent job, especially . . . Randy Rembold, who took part in all the certifications, always supporting the PTS [Provisional Technical Secretariat] staff before, during, and after the certification visits.”

Randy has visited almost every US station from Antarctica to the Arctic, including sensor sites on Guam, Midway Island, Wake Island, Alaska, and Hawaii.

“We’re in the shadows; our name doesn’t get mentioned,” he says of Sandia’s involvement. “We don’t run the stations, we just certify that the stations meet CTBT design and operation specs.”

As a part of the inspection, Sandia conducts both system and component testing, currently done by Darren Hart (5736) at each of the stations. Randy says that “Sandia is known all over the world among the seismic monitoring community for our FACT [Facility for Acceptance, Calibration, and Testing] test facility and the sensor, digitizer, and system evaluation performed there.” A digitizer is the heart of a data acquisition system that measures a voltage signal, converting it into a binary file consisting of ones and zeroes. Because seismic signals of interest may be quite small with respect to the background, the digitizers have very high resolution, usually with the capability of resolving one part in 16 million of the full-scale signal.

Airborne nuclear debris collection, analysis

The gold standard for confirming that an explosion observed by seismic, hydroacoustic, or infrasound sensors is of nuclear origin is by detection of short-lived radionuclides produced by the event.

Historically, aircraft equipped with special collection equipment have been the most effective at accomplishing this task. Aircraft have the mobility to fly “downwind” of the event, which may require searching over a broad ocean area. Fixed land-based radionuclide sensors do not have this option, and might not be located in the path of the debris plume.

Airborne evidence is difficult to mask, says Joe Sanders (5924). Even when the scrutinized nation goes to great lengths to contain the radioactive explosion products from an underground nuclear test, telltale radionuclides can still leak out and be detected downwind. Radioactive debris from poorly contained events often escapes immediately and in large quantities, making airborne collection and detection quite feasible.

Well into the current decade, the primary US aircraft nuclear collection capability consisted of nuclear debris collection and analysis equipment developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This equipment was installed on military aircraft, which underwent extensive fuselage modifications to carry the bulky equipment. This pre-computer era equipment used vacuum tubes and chart recorders and required pencil-and-paper data logging. In the late 1990s, Sandia was tasked to develop an upgraded airborne sampling suite to replace the still-operating 1960s-era system.

The fully computerized system, which went operational in 2004, represented a major modernization over the earlier system, but “it still required permanent modifications to the aircraft,” says Walt Caldwell (5923).

The modular solution

Recognizing that permanent modifications to aircraft are expensive and limit the number of platforms on which sampling systems can be flown, Sandia has been developing modular hardware since early this decade. The currently favored modular solution consists of pods that can be attached on hardpoints beneath the wings of manned or unmanned aircraft, says Joe. Research to develop and test these pods has been supported by NA-22 and DoD.

To date, Sandia and its Albuquerque industrial partner Mechtronic Solutions, Inc., have developed technology demonstration units for three types of pods: a particulate collection pod (known as ARCS), a whole air sampling pod (known as WASP), and a directional gamma sensor pod (known as DGRS) that can identify the direction of peak radiation intensity in the nuclear debris plume. “The ARCS pod has been successfully tested on both manned and unmanned aircraft,” says Joe.

Says Bob Huelskamp (5730), “Sandia is a great example of what a national lab can do in support of a presidential objective to improve world security.” -- Neal Singer

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A C. elegans solution to clearance sampling

By Patti Koning

After a biological attack, how do recovery teams know for sure that a site is sufficiently decontaminated and safe once again for people? Turns out, it’s not an easy or fast process, but one that biologist Cathy Branda (8621) is hoping to revolutionize with a rather amazing nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans.

Cathy Branda watches for fluorescent expression in a strain of C. elegans that, with a little work, may someday be used for on site clearance sampling. (Photo by Randy Wong)

Cathy is working with Mark Tucker (6327), who for many years has led Sandia’s efforts in developing methods, procedures, and technologies to remediate facilities contaminated in a terrorist release of a biological agent. Mark’s team found that testing for residual live virus or bacteria following initial decontamination efforts, a process called clearance sampling, can be the longest step in the remediation process. Detection of residual live virus is particularly problematic and time-consuming, as it requires evaluation of replication potential within a eukaryotic host such as chicken embryos.

Currently, clearance sampling involves collecting swab samples from across a site and transporting them to a suitable laboratory for measurement of biological activity. Depending on the agent, the samples may need to be processed at a biosafety level 3 or 4 laboratory. In the aftermath of the Senate anthrax attack of 2001, the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) performed more than 30,000 individual assays on more than 10,000 samples, processing more than 700 per day at the peak.

The Hart Senate Office Building was closed for three months, more than half of which was for clearance sampling. Some of the postal facilities affected in the attack were closed for years. While closing office buildings and postal facilities is of relatively low consequence — the work can be moved elsewhere — the closure of a major transit center such as an airport could have devastating economic impact.

“As all of our prior work on remediation has shown, the time required for clearance sampling really limits our ability to return facilities or even entire cities to operation,” says Duane Lindner (8120). “Having a rapid method of clearance sampling would relieve a fundamental roadblock to rapid restoration.”

Cathy’s answer is to turn C. elegans loose on the problem and perform clearance sampling on site using the nematode. This Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) project is attempting to use modified C. elegans that would fluoresce in the presence of live virus. Clearance sampling could be as simple as spreading a C. elegans-laden gel on the affected area and shining a UV light to see if the virus had initiated replication within the animal. Remediators could have their answer in as little as eight hours.

“To revolutionize this process, you need to bring the host to the site of contamination and have an on-site, rapid assay process so you don’t have to take swab samples, transport them to a laboratory, or do culturing,” she says. “That’s the utility we are trying to bring to C. elegans.”

Naturally, this process is easier said than done. But Cathy and her team — chemical engineer Mark Tucker (6327); virologist Oscar Negrete (8621); data analyst Joe Schoeniger (8621); and laboratory technologists Julie Kaiser (8621, year one) and Carrie Kozina (8625, years two and three) — can leverage what is already known about C. elegans and viral replication. They’ll also draw on Mark’s work with decontamination foam in developing the gel.

A worm by any other name

Let’s get one thing straight: C. elegans are roundworms, but they aren’t the parasitic sort that can make people sick. In fact, C. elegans, which are present in large numbers in the environment all around us, have already made significant contributions to medical research.

C. elegans is one of Cathy’s (along with many other scientists’) favorite lab animals for a number of reasons. Despite being just a millimeter long, they are multicellular organisms with complex biology and a well-developed nervous system. They are genetically well-characterized, optically transparent, and replicate in just a few days, producing large brood sizes.

Another advantage of C. elegans is that they are eukaryotes, sharing cellular and molecular structures and control pathways with higher organisms. That’s not all it shares — about 35 percent of the little worm’s genes have human homologs, or, in other words, common ancestry.

They are extremely adept at living in harsh environments and even have an alternative life form called the dauer larval stage, in which they can survive without food or water for months. C. elegans survived the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. This heartiness poses a problem for Cathy’s grand plan — while they are susceptible to infection, they also have a strong antiviral response and natural defenses, such as a strong outer cuticle.

“To make this application sensitive enough for clearance sampling, we need to render these animals as susceptible to viral infection as possible,” says Cathy. “This poses a significant challenge, but I believe it’s possible. There is no doubt we need to use a lot of creativity in our approach.”

The team is testing a large number of C. elegans mutants and experimenting with different chemicals and pressure gradients to see if they can take those natural defenses down a notch. They are also working with Creg Darby, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who is using C. elegans to research biofilms of Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of bubonic plague. Darby has shared his library of identified mutations that render the cuticle fragile.

Shine a light

The other half of the C. elegans solution is to modify the animal’s metabolic signaling pathways with a “molecular tag” so that when a specific virus replicates within it, the animal acts as a sensor and fluoresces. Again, the team has the advantage of previous research, but still needs to break new ground.

The team is working with mKate2, a fluorophore that fluoresces red when exposed to green light. Since most background autofluorescence glows green when exposed to blue light, similar to the popularly used green fluorescent protein (GFP), the team’s use of mKate2 should help to eliminate false positives.

As a proof of concept, Oscar is developing molecular tags for two viruses: Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV) and vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV). Here at Sandia, he’s using attenuated, nonvirulent strains that fully conform to Sandia’s rigorous biosafety requirements.

Getting the molecular tag into the animal is not the difficult part — reading it is. “Because C. elegans is only a millimeter long and we are talking about a subset of their cells, the ability to amplify that signal is critical if we are going to be able to detect it,” says Cathy.

Fortunately, another of C. elegans’ talents is communication via a pheromone signaling pathway. The response of the animal depends on the pheromone concentration it detects — enough will send it into the dauer state. This trigger involves an insulin receptor pathway similar to that found in humans, so it has been studied extensively.

The idea is to manipulate the C. elegans so that it produces the dauer signal in cells that have been infected. Instead of sending the recipient into the dauer state, the modified signal would trigger an amplification of the fluorescent response. “While much is known about this trigger, no one has tried to take advantage of its properties for an application,” Cathy says. “To trigger the amplification of the signal is novel, and determining the right way to do that is a challenge.”

Many milestones

By the end of the LDRD project, Cathy aims to have modified strains of C. elegans that can be used as sensors for RVFV and VSV. Her other objective is to develop sufficiently immune-compromised C. elegans. Between these goals and where the researchers are now, there are several significant milestones.

“Even if we can’t render the C. elegans susceptible enough for clearance sampling, the strains we will generate will still be useful tools for both homeland defense and research,” says Cathy. For example, she envisions a pool of C. elegans sensor strains that could be used to quickly identify the viral agent employed in an attack.

The immune-compromised C. elegans could also serve as a model to study questions such as how a virus spreads through tissues, what tissues are targeted, the receptors for viral infections, and mechanisms for limiting infections.

She’s also excited about the potential to share the research within Sandia. C. elegans are an incredibly useful tool that could be applied to many research areas relevant to Sandia’s missions, including cell-cell signaling, genomics, proteomics, environmental and particle toxicity, identification of antimicrobial and antifungal agents, etc.

“There is a lot of excitement about this project because it is such a fresh approach,” says Duane. “If it works — and there is every indication that it will work — this clearance sampling method will revolutionize restoration.” -- Patti Koning

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