Sandia LabNews

Sandia coordinates international collaboration on nuclear detection architectures


Bringing together 48 different nations is no easy feat – especially to tackle topics as complex as nuclear counterterrorism and corresponding nuclear detection architectures (NDA). But that’s exactly what a team from the US Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) and Sandia, including Chad Haddal, Stacy Mui, and Jason Reinhardt (all 8112), were able to pull off this past March in Córdoba, Spain.

We looked to the international community to set the agenda topics," says Jason. "We wanted a true roundtable of different players with no distinction given to size, expertise, or resources."

Formally titled the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism’s (GICNT) Nuclear Detection Working Group session on Education, Training, and Exercise (ET&E), the workshop was the third in an ongoing series of international workshops funded by DNDO’s Systems Architecture Directorate. The first two were held in Garmisch, Germany, in April 2009 and March 2010.

PHYSICIST Nick Mascarenhas (8132) prepares a neutron scatter camera detector for a test. The device detects radiation at significant standoff distances and through shielding, and pinpoints radiation sources, making it an ideal tool in the effort to counter nuclear terrorism (Photo by Randy Wong

US and Russia are co-chairs

GICNT is an international partnership of 82 nations and four official observers committed to working individually and collectively to implement a set of shared nuclear security principles. The mission of the GICNT is to strengthen global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism by conducting multilateral activities that strengthen the plans, policies, procedures, and interoperability of partner nations.

The US and Russia serve as co-chairs of the GICNT, and Spain serves as coordinator of the Implementation and Assessment Group (IAG). To date, GICNT partners have conducted more than 30 multilateral activities and six senior-level meetings in support of these nuclear security objectives.

Sandia’s involvement began about four months after the initial Garmisch workshop, when DNDO asked Sandia to edit and restructure a high-level best practices document on nuclear detection architecture. Titled "Model Guidelines Document on Nuclear Detection Architecture," the document was released in December 2009. Sandia was then charged with creating an agenda for a second Garmisch workshop to collaboratively develop a series of topics for more focused follow-on best practice documents related to the development, enhancement, and implementation of NDAs.

The intent was to take the high-level strategic framework, as outlined in the initial Model Guidelines Document for Nuclear Detection Architectures, and focus subsequent follow-on discussion on the collective practical applications of those principles and high-level strategic objectives.

"I like to think of this effort as the collaborative development of an encyclopedia for NDAs," says Stacy. "If you’re going to stand up a capability in the next three years, how do you leverage existing infrastructure within a country or region?"

The second Garmisch workshop led Jason, working with Karen Jefferson, who recently retired from Sandia, to home in on three topics: awareness, training, and exercise; planning and organization; and the role of technology. The goal is to develop a best practices document on each topic over the next three years.

The Córdoba workshop was the first meeting to brainstorm critical concepts related to education, training, and exercises. The workshop series, says Jason, is in some respects an international outreach effort to get as many countries as possible involved in the discussion. By all measures, that effort is a roaring success – attendance more than tripled between the 2010 and 2011 workshops. More than 150 representatives from 48 nations and observing organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and Interpol, attended the Córdoba workshop compared with 40 representatives from 18 nations in Garmisch in 2010.

"Both DNDO and Sandia wanted to make sure that the international community was well represented in the Córdoba workshop. Because of the overwhelming response, there was not a single US presentation outside of the opening remarks," says Stacy. She says it was extremely gratifying for her and Jason to help draft the closing remarks that were given by Mohan Matthews of Australia and Mark Wittrock of DNDO.

Eye-opening discussion

Among the attendees were Afghanistan, Australia, China, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Morocco, the Netherlands, Romania, Pakistan, Russia, Serbia, and Spain. The 46 nations and observers all brought different perspectives and experiences related to NDAs. Jason and Stacy describe the discussion as quite eye-opening.

"The United States tends to look internally first, and then to the international community to augment what we are doing as a nation," says Jason. "Other countries may look outward first. Some countries see themselves as part of a region, which changes the way they monitor their borders. Island nations have a whole different set of challenges."

There were also differences on training – should your first line of defense simply operate equipment or have a broad understanding of the threat? The use of technology, which will be the focus of year three, is another differentiating factor.

"In the United States, technology is inexpensive compared to labor, so technology is an obvious part of the solution for us," says Stacy. "But that’s not the case in many other countries. You design a system that fits, based on your circumstances."

Another key theme throughout the course of the discussions was that technology is only a facilitator for enhanced detection; human decision-making is the central element. For this reason, the Córdoba discussions sought to build on existing law enforcement frameworks that virtually all countries have.

Among the representatives from each country there were also different points of view. The workshop brought together a mix of people that Stacy and Jason termed "implementers" – the military, national police, and border guards – with diplomats from ministries of foreign affairs and departments of state. In the many discussions that ensued over the three-day Córdoba workshop, Jason says the goal was always to explore and share different methods.

"It’s all about achieving a set of agreed-upon objectives and goals. How you get there doesn’t matter," he says. "Countries ultimately will choose what is best for them, but exploring that space as a collective whole is the real goal. The best-practices documents are meant to be a menu, so that everyone understands the options and we can all learn from one another."

Jason and Stacy also think the lessons from the workshop will inform their work as systems analysts back at Sandia. "We have a lot to process but we learned a lot along the way about how we can better think more systematically and broadly," says Stacy.

Follow-on conference in Croatia Now they are working on turning 50 pages of notes from the Córdoba workshop into a rough draft on which the international drafting group will build. Sixteen nations signed on to the international drafting group.

"Because we have a bigger drafting group than we expected, we envision an overall methodology with call-out case studies so nations can talk specifically about what they’ve done in the past and what works for them," says Stacy.

That draft will then be sent to the 82 members of the GICNT. The document will be finalized in a follow-on workshop in Croatia in October. Ideally, says Jason, Sandia will facilitate four GICNT engagements a year on behalf of DNDO, two workshops like Córdoba and two bilateral meetings. The project is funded through the next fiscal year and Jason expects a third year of funding to come through soon.

"As systems analysts, the rewards come few and far between. You write a report and a few months later someone calls with questions. A few years later, an idea from that report might catch on and in five years there might be a program based loosely on what you wrote, so you really have to dig for the credit," says Jason. "With the Garmisch and Córdoba workshops, we did something with immediate impact. I think we are in a new era of national security and global engagement. If we do this right, the national labs could play a larger role in international efforts. It’s great to be part of the leading edge."