Sandia LabNews

Simulation monitors traffic in contraband material


A Sandia researcher has developed a simulation program designed to track the illicit trade in fissile and nonfissile radiological material well enough to predict who is building the next nuclear weapon and where they are doing it.

“By using a cluster analysis algorithm coded into a program,” says David York (6763), “I evaluated those traffic patterns and routes in which thefts, seizures, and destinations of materials were reported. Data from these examinations were enough to allow me to retrospectively depict the A. Q. Khan network before it was uncovered."

Khan is a Pakistani scientist linked to the illicit proliferation of nuclear technical knowledge. Cluster analyses link data of common place, time, or material. Testing a computer simulation on a known past event is one means of establishing the program’s validity.

In the Khan analysis, David generated an analysis of networked routes indicative of a nuclear trafficking scheme between countries. In several verified incidents, inspectors seized uranium enriched to 80 percent, as well as dual-use items indicative of small-scale development of crude nuclear devices.

In the study, David collected and collated data from 800 open-source incidents from 1992 to the present, along with the movement of dual-use items like beryllium and zirconium. He plotted the incidents on a geographic information system (GIS) software platform. He came up with a network of countries and routes between countries indicative of an illicit nuclear and radiological trafficking scheme.

“The number of incidents and the quantity and quality of material seized is disturbing,” David says, “particularly because this may represent a small percentage of the actual amount of material being trafficked.”

The situation may be worse than it appears because much information about nuclear material traffic is classified, David says, to prevent embarrassment to countries through which a nuclear weapon or the materials to fabricate a weapon may have passed.

David presented his results in October at the International Safeguards Conference sponsored by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria. He has also been invited to present his methods and conclusions to the European Union’s Illicit Trafficking Working Group at the June meeting of the IAEA.

How does the method work? “One begins by conducting cluster analyses on the GIS platform for material or activity similar to the incident in question. This gives the analyst an idea of corridors used by potential smugglers. It also indicates where the material might have come from and where it is,” says David. “If the trafficker has only a certain amount of time to reach a destination, and you have that information, one can ask what is the shortest route from point A to point B, or find major highways needed to accommodate a large shipment.”

For the tool to be effective, “Enough information must be collected under a cooperative international framework,” David says. “Then info must be analyzed to separate patterns from noise, essentially creating intelligence.”

Nation-states that reuse nuclear fuel through reprocessing can create and ship dangerous

materials that previously were confined to the more industrialized world.

“We’re trying to develop a market niche for this kind of tracking program,” says Sandia Manager Gary Rochau (6763), “and I think we’re ahead of everyone’s headlights.”

The method can be used to track other materials, such as drugs. “We have a lot of interest from a lot of agencies,” says Gary.

Trafficking may be engaged in by amateur smugglers trying to feed their families in a post-Soviet era. It may also be practiced by organized crime that finds a lucrative market in moving illicit materials, and by terrorists interested in the potential devastation and psychological effects of the use of nuclear materials.

David developed the program as part of his master’s thesis while a student intern at Sandia.