Sandia LabNews

A global shift for national security

Threats posed by terrorism, anthrax attacks still shape Sandia’s mission 20 years later

Image of Researcher demonstrates decontamination foam
TIME TO SHINE — Former Sandia researcher Maher Tadros demonstrates application of decontamination foam, which was deployed on Capitol Hill, in mailrooms and in newsrooms during the anthrax scare following 9/11. Tadros and researcher Mark Tucker co-developed the foam in the late 1990s. (Photo by Randy Montoya from the archives)

In the days, weeks and months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sandia stepped in to assist with the immediate response in myriad ways, from dispatching emergency personnel to Ground Zero to assist with search and rescue to providing equipment for K-9 rescue units that transmitted live audio and video.

When several Capitol Hill buildings were contaminated with anthrax mailed in anonymous letters, Sandia-developed aqueous foam was used to decontaminate the buildings.

“Like most Americans, the people of Sandia National Laboratories responded,” then-Labs Director C. Paul Robinson told a congressional committee in 2002. “As a result of strategic planning and the prior investment of resources for emerging threats, Sandia was in a position to immediately address some urgent needs.”

Even as Sandia was immersed in the immediate response to the attacks, changes were beginning to take shape in its mission in response to newly recognized threats. Some were more immediate while others evolved over the past 20 years. Clearly, the definition of national security changed and the concept of homeland security had become paramount.

Evolving to address new national security threats was not new for Sandia. Throughout its history, Sandia’s mission has evolved while it continues to focus on its primary mission—sustaining and modernizing the nuclear arsenal.

The Lab News takes a look at some of those changes to its mission below.

Focus shifts to nonstate actors, bio threats

The focus of much of Sandia’s work prior to the 9/11 attacks centered on countering threats posed by nation states, such as securing nuclear materials in Russia or training delegations from various countries on the role of cooperative monitoring in implementing treaties and other regional security arrangements. Sandia’s Cooperative Monitoring Center, established in 1994, was built on the premise of applying science and technology to build trust and reduce tension among countries in global hot spots.

“The issue of nonstate actors was almost absent,” said senior scientist Amir Mohagheghi. The potential threat of nonstate actors, individuals or groups that are not allied with any particular country or state, was on the radar of some staff members in Sandia’s International Programs group, but efforts to obtain funding for further study from Washington sponsors had been unsuccessful.

“After 9/11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks, there was a surge of interest in threats from nonstate actors and also biological agents, leading to the formation of the international biological threat reduction program in 2003,” Amir said. A chemical threat reduction program was added soon after.

The events influenced Amir as well. A physicist by training, he said the attacks sparked his interest in global security and the role of nonstate actors, prompting him to seek a job in 2002 in International Programs, now the Center for Global Security and Cooperation, where he’s worked ever since.

Biologist and systems engineer Sue Caskey said her work prior to 9/11 focused heavily on “state-based concerns,” such as safeguards, treaty work, and securing Biopreparat, the biological warfare labs of the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s, interest was high in verifying compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention treaties. “After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was concern over the need to secure pathogens from falling into the wrong hands although what was meant by ‘the wrong hands’ wasn’t specifically defined,” Sue said.

The 2001 anthrax attacks focused biosecurity on domestic facilities, while 9/11 changed the state of chemical security. “Suddenly there was a big initiative to help secure domestic chemical facilities and protect them from being terrorist targets, which ultimately expanded internationally,” Sue said. “Additionally, there was a paradigm shift from the Cooperative Monitoring Center’s work focusing on transparency between states and trying to get states to agree with each other to being focused on nonstate actors.”

Since 2007, Sue and other team members have produced an annual global threat prioritization analysis that uses modeling to evaluate the potential for nonstate actors or terrorist organizations to exploit chemical, biological and nuclear materials in a country to develop a weapon of mass destruction. “The models help us understand the legitimate infrastructure in various countries, how it’s protected, and the potential interest by nonstate actors to exploit them. This allowed us to be able to prioritize efforts to help secure these materials,” she said.

The 9/11 attacks also changed the focus of government sponsors and what they were willing to support. “The field of biosecurity didn’t really exist pre-9/11,” said Director Jen Gaudioso, who joined Sandia as a postdoc in 2002. “It really was the catalyst for the change in awareness of the threat and the need to broaden research to look at biological agents and facilities and the potential misuse of these materials.”

Before 9/11, the DOE had a small chem-bio defense effort. The 1991 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program provided for a small chem-bio effort as well. But Nunn-Lugar was primarily created to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and associated infrastructure in the former Soviet states of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. After the Department of Homeland Security was formed in 2002, DOE’s chem-bio work moved to DHS and became the science and technology directorate.

In 2003, Sandia announced it was pursuing biotechnology as a focus. While the Labs had engaged in some biotech research in the previous decade, the mission driver for renewed interest came from the realization that it was critical to countering bioterrorism and biowarfare. Sandia created a Biotech Science & Technology Council in 2000 to lead efforts to become the biotechnology laboratory of choice for national security challenges.

Within the Center for Global Security and Cooperation, Sandia established the International Biological Threat Reduction program to advance U.S. threat reduction and counterterrorism goals by developing and implementing systems and practices to promote safe and secure use and management of high-risk biological agents across the globe. At Sandia/California, the Biological and Materials Sciences center was formed to meet national security challenges in biodefense, emerging infectious disease and energy security.

As Sandia built up its chem-bio-related programs over the years, the Labs produced numerous cutting-edge technologies and was called upon to support numerous national and international incidents:          

BaDx – Sandia developed a credit card-sized pathogen detector used to identify anthrax. Popular Science named BaDx as one of 100 best innovations in 2015.

Ebola – Nearly 60 Sandians contributed to mitigating the effects of the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic by developing a sample delivery system that cut wait times and reduced exposures.

Laboratory Biosecurity Handbook – Written by Jen Gaudioso and former Sandian Ren Salerno, the book covers the principles for laboratory biosecurity to reduce the risk of bioscience facilities becoming sources of pathogens and toxins for malicious use.

Amerithrax – Using advanced microanalysis tools developed at Sandia in support of nuclear weapons work, Sandia showed that the spore materials in the anthrax-containing letters most likely came from the same source and that no chemical additives were used to make the spores more dispersible.

Following Amerithrax, the U.S. government turned to Sandia for assistance in designing biosecurity at U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biolabs, work that helped spur the creation and promulgation of laboratory biosecurity around the world.

More recently, Sandia’s chem-bio expertise was mined for the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including in the development of a clinical testing laboratory on-site. “We would never have been able to stand up a COVID testing program if it hadn’t been for the formation of the Biological and Materials Sciences center,” Jen said. Having the biotechnology expertise and infrastructure on-site allowed us to do that.”

In March 2020, a team of bioscientists from the center established a federally registered diagnostic lab and FDA-authorized diagnostic test that enabled Sandia to perform tests for the virus on-site and, in most cases, return test results in less than 24 hours. This allowed Sandia to continue mission-essential classified and laboratory work safely during a stay-at-home order.

Physical security takes on more urgency

Shortly before 9/11, Randy Peterson, then a staff member in Sandia’s physical security group, briefed an Air Force general on Sandia’s Remotely Operated Weapons System, a security technology that removes the operator from the line of fire. This later became the Remote Target Engagement System. The general said “there was no way in hell they were going to use that technology” because it was “too risky.” Two days after 9/11, Randy got a call from the Air Force asking, “How soon can you put that in the field?”

“That was a big change,” said Randy, now director of weapons and force protection. “After 9/11 they were willing to look at things differently, to look at performance-based solutions for physical security and nuclear weapons.” The Remotely Operated Weapons System was deployed at numerous locations, and Sandia is working on the fourth generation of the system.

Sandia has also performed extensive modeling and simulation for the Air Force since 2001 to better understand potential threats and vulnerabilities. Prior to that time, much of Sandia’s work with the Air Force was focused on security for nonnuclear sites and facilities. “There wasn’t a sense at the time that the weapons storage areas, many built in the 1960s and 1970s, needed much in the way of upgrades,” Randy said.

With the collapse of the World Trade Center, that all changed. Sandia is currently in the process of replacing all Air Force weapons storage areas with heavily bermed facilities called Weapons Generation Facilities. These facilities consolidate weapon maintenance, storage and training functions required to support the intercontinental ballistic missile and bomber missions.

“That all came about because of 9/11, which was kind of a wakeup call from continuing to do things status quo,” he said. It also served to reestablish Sandia’s role of providing turnkey physical security systems for the Air Force. Today, the Department of Defense is a major customer of weapons and force protection, second only to DOE and NNSA.

A new philosophy for nuclear incident response

The terrorists who boarded four commercial jetliners on September 11 were not seeking money or the release of political prisoners. They gave no warning or deadline to meet any demands. Their sole goal was to incite terror and take as many American lives as possible.

Although the 9/11 attacks did not involve a nuclear device, they led to a significant change in philosophy and approach for those involved in the nation’s nuclear counterterrorism response, said Art Shanks, manager of the Nuclear Incident Response Program. Until that point the threat of hostile action had been used as leverage to achieve the fulfillment of other demands — for example, to extort money or demand the release of prisoners. The Nuclear Emergency Support Team program operated under the assumption that they had time to locate, analyze and ultimately neutralize the threat.

“That type of threat scenario was the basis for the response posture against nuclear threats but the attacks definitely changed the game for NEST teams across the DOE complex,” Art said. Responders now had to assume that the terrorist was potentially going to use the device at any moment with no warning, that it could be equipped with automated triggers or timers and that there might not be any advance demands or deadlines. “The response posture was changed to one where the teams expect to be dealing with a bomb that could be ticking down, remotely detonated, or could go off at any second,” he said. “So time from identification to resolution became one of the single biggest issues.”

The need to shorten the timeline for response and become more agile drove numerous changes to the protocols and technologies used by the nation’s nuclear response teams, comprising individuals across the nuclear weapons complex, DOE, Department of Defense and Department of Justice. Many of the changes were not immediate and some had started prior to 9/11; however, the 9/11 attacks definitely solidified the changing threat, and accelerated the pace of progress, Art said.

The increased need for speed led to an initiative to train and equip specialized regional teams in a number of U.S. cities to respond to a potential nuclear threat device. Sandia is a key lab involved in developing technologies and providing training to these regional teams.

“The decision to regionalize the response capability allows expertly trained response team members with highly specialized equipment to get hands on to a device more quickly once it’s been discovered,” Art said. “That’s an entirely new response posture that’s been generated over the last two decades.”

Image of X-Ray Toolkit
X-RAY VISION — In a training session, bomb technicians use Sandia’s X-Ray Toolkit software to stitch together X-ray images of a suspicious package. (Photo courtesy of the NNSA)

Sandia is also involved on the technology front. A team in Asset Protection and Weapons of Mass Destruction Response is leading the development of a directed energy laser, a new tool in the arsenal for disablement. Another team is working to better understand and characterize the performance of shaped charges, using CT scanning to analyze the charges, which are used to surgically disable key components in a threat device.

Sandia has developed a hyper-concentrated version of its aqueous foam, which is used in blast containment structures. Responders used to bring a dozen 5-gallon buckets of foam concentrate to the site, requiring significant manpower and transportation resources. Now they bring a couple small containers of the hyper-concentrated version that they dilute on-site to make the concentrate, which in turn is used to generate large volumes of aqueous blast suppression foam.

Sandia continues to make enhancements to the X-Ray Toolkit, radiography software developed for bomb technicians in 2009. The development of the toolkit was driven by the need to rapidly analyze X-rays of suspicious devices and make decisions quickly.

“In addition to new equipment and tools like XTK, numerous small changes have occurred over the past 20 years as a result of 9/11 that have put better information in the hands of explosive ordnance disposal specialists more quickly,” Art said.