Future arms control agreements might require monitoring nondeployed nuclear weapons and counting individual warheads, so when US negotiators begin work on the successor agreement to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), research by Sandia and other labs could inform them of possible technological solutions.
Sandia, working with National Security Technologies (NSTec), contractor for the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), developed the Chain of Custody Test Bed at NNSS to support arms control technology experiments and demonstrations. Working with Lawrence Livermore (LLNL) and Pacific Northwest national laboratories (PNNL), Sandia developed systems to track the movements of nuclear warheads throughout their life cycles for arms control purposes.
In the completed first phase of the project, Sandia developed the test bed backbone of the new monitoring system, worked out the systems engineering, provided the infrastructure to collect the data from sensors, defined interfaces between sensors and computers, and figured out how to store, organize, and display the monitoring data collected, Sandia physicist Sharon DeLand (6831) says.
Last spring, a second project that expands the Chain of Custody Test Bed research, called End to End, was initiated to broaden the research and development to questions of how to validate the entrance of a nuclear warhead into the monitoring system and confirm its eventual dismantlement. Both projects are funded by NNSA.
The projects are giving researchers significant insights. The next generation of laboratory experts is learning to think about this problem in an agile fashion so they can provide insights to policymakers during future negotiations and develop solutions that will make it easier to implement new agreements, says Regina Griego (5537), lead systems engineer for the Chain of Custody project.
Under New START, the US and Russia currently only limit the number of deployed warheads on strategic weapons, but potential future monitoring of nondeployed nuclear weapons would bring new challenges.
Nondeployed warheads are in a dynamic environment throughout their lifecycles — in Department of Defense or Department of Energy storage, in transport, or undergoing maintenance. The Chain of Custody research focused on a systems approach to tracking warheads, says Mary Clare Stoddard, manager of Nuclear Monitoring and Transparency Dept. 6831.
Of course, the US has domestic systems in place to track its warheads. But when it comes to arms control verification, the procedures covered under the agreement need to provide enough information to convince a treaty partner that the US is abiding by the treaty’s terms and vice versa, Sharon says. For identification purposes, this could be somewhat like providing a fingerprint, but not an entire DNA profile.
Test bed an intermediary step
To explore ways to monitor warheads through their lifecycles, the Chain of Custody Test Bed was created to demonstrate the technologies and concept of an integrated monitoring system and evaluate US technologies in action, Regina says.
Sandia has a strong history of research and development for on-site inspection technologies, including the radiation detection equipment used for the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, START, and New START.
The Chain of Custody and End-to-End programs grew out of research for the Warhead Monitoring Technology Program in the 1990s. That program developed monitoring concepts for a single weapon type, and then the Chain of Custody project expanded the research to monitor a variety of container configurations throughout more of the weapon lifecycle, says Kevin Seager (5944), an expert in radiation detection for treaty monitoring.
Demonstrating arms control technologies
The test bed consists of a tunnel that houses mock storage and maintenance areas and a second site that contains a mock staging bunker and high bay that simulate stockpile surveillance and life extension activities, Mary Clare says. Small sealed radiation sources were used to trigger some sensors in the testing.
The team installed instruments and stocked the facilities with containers that normally hold nuclear weapons, Regina says.
“These test assets weren’t easily found; Sandia and NSTec had to be scavengers,” she says. “It was quite a complex venture to collect containers and other equipment representing everything in the active stockpile.”
Sandia designed the communications backbone, a data collection and management system. Then Sandia, LLNL, and PNNL tested a variety of monitoring technologies and concepts. The test bed enabled an integrated experiment that included containers fitted with the different labs’ monitors moving among the mock facilities while the communications system tracked them, Mary Clare says.
Field test challenges
The field test experiment included baseline inspection activities: monitoring mock warheads during simulated stockpile management operations and transportation. During the four-day experiment, about 4,000 events were recorded, including attaching item monitors, checking items into and out of monitored areas, and transporting the items between locations, Sharon says.
Successful field tests usually uncover problems not anticipated in a laboratory setting, and the Chain of Custody tests were no exception, Mary Clare says.
One challenge that emerged was synchronization of the monitoring systems. Even when times were off by tenths of seconds, it was very difficult to figure out what happened, says Mike Coram (6831), who led the software development team that collected and analyzed the data. The team built in additional synchronization to resolve the issue.
The team also battled temperatures of 120 degrees, snow, rain, and lightning, giving them a chance to expose the technology to realistic environments.
Despite the hurdles, after incorporating what the team learned during a series of technology evaluations, mock inspectors could track mock weapons through multiple facilities and reliably detect simple attempts to divert weapons or tamper with the monitoring system, Sharon says.
Test bed underpins research portfolio
The Chain of Custody project’s results became the bedrock for a large piece of NNSA’s arms control technology research and development portfolio, Regina says. “I’m really proud of the fact the team pulled together, that we were able to find such a great staff,” she says. “Every one of these people was critical.”
The Chain of Custody evaluation experiments showed it is possible:
- to monitor and track test objects within facilities and in transit;
- to operate in complex environments like the tunnel; and
- to detect unauthorized opening of containers.
The Chain of Custody project was a team effort, with Regina organizing the test bed development. Test director Justin Fernandez (5943) planned and oversaw the movements of the mock weapons and orchestrated the test scenarios. Justin also designed how to attach the monitors developed at all the labs to the containers so one side could not remove them without the other side knowing.
Jay Brotz (6831) led development of the monitoring devices and equipment. The labs worked within the larger team, developing and demonstrating their tracking technologies, and enabling secure, trusted communications, which provided the basis for overall project evaluation.
The team used Sandia monitoring technologies and commercial motion sensors, door switches, and cameras, and integrated them into the communications interface.
Multilab team created to tackle arms control research
The End-to-End project is now underway as part of a larger NNSA R&D National Center for Nuclear Security program based at the NNSS, says Sandia’s deputy program manager Steve Vigil (5751). The End-to-End project broadens the concepts explored in the Chain of Custody project to include the development of technology to monitor during warhead confirmation and dismantlement and new features in the test bed.
In the End-to-End project, the multilab team is developing detection, tracking, and radiation measurement technologies, combining them into systems with integrated data collection and analysis, and exercising them with the various approaches to figure out how they could work together, Mary Clare says.
Los Alamos National Laboratory also joined the End-to-End project and will take part in a large-scale demonstration planned for 2018.
“No one has the right answer; they’re all different approaches. Because the labs are peer reviewing each other’s ideas, it really strengthens what comes out,” Steve says.