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Back to EurekAlert! A Service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

 

A partner in peace

Building better weapons, stronger defense programs and superior military power might be the first things to come to mind when one hears the words "national security." At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, however, many researchers are working on programs aimed at keeping people safe and the world at peace. We asked Mike Kluse, Associate Laboratory Director for Pacific Northwest's National Security Directorate, about the Laboratory's role as a partner in peace and what has changed since the tragic events of Sept. 11.

You describe Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as a partner in peace. Can you explain what you mean?

I think that the Laboratory can play this role in two broad areas. The broadest is what we're doing to support global security. Global security is not just countering terrorism, but also preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—both the know-how and the materials. Global security also involves addressing problems or situations that can lead to conflict, such as environmental issues and energy supply. We play a leadership role in those aspects of global security as well as by helping halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The second area—asset protection and infrastructure protection—is more focused. There is a strong emphasis on technologies for protecting critical infrastructure elements of the United States including our energy systems, communications systems and computer security. We are helping understand the vulnerabilities of these systems and determining what techniques and technologies could be applied to mitigate them.

What has changed since Sept. 11?

There is certainly a whole new sense of urgency in the country relative to increasing the capability to detect potential terrorist activities, coming up with more fool-proof mechanisms to understand how terrorists carry out their missions and addressing how one might counter these from a technological and operational standpoint.

I think this Lab has a lot to offer. We're not just starting to focus on these concerns, we've been doing this for years. We have worked on identifying and understanding proliferation and terrorism signatures, systems to collect materials, sensors to quantify and characterize these materials and techniques that assist in analyzing possible events.

Even before Sept. 11, we have been making significant contributions to countering terrorism and infrastructure protection. We have been addressing concerns over cyber security—attacks on government networks or exploiting government networks. We have been working on detecting smuggling or potential smuggling of nuclear, chemical or biological materials that could find their way into weapons of mass destruction.

We have been developing technologies and helping train international border guards on how to detect smuggling activities for years. Now, we're starting to conduct this training domestically because we realize U.S. forces need the same training.

What are the upcoming areas of focus?

Right now, tools to rapidly detect chemical and biological weapons are not widely deployed. We're working to improve the nation's ability to rapidly and accurately detect biological agents in the environment. We can no longer wait for people to lose their lives to realize there is a problem. Building and deploying systems for early detection and warning is definitely an area of focus. Then, we have to look at how to protect against these threats or counter them.

We're also trying to anticipate the next generation of information visualization tools. In today's information-rich environment, we need to integrate information from multiple sources, interpret the data and make decisions in a timely manner. This Laboratory has been working on information visualization tools and data mining tools for the past 20 years and these tools really play into today's national security environment. Now we need to look at multimedia inputs and more automated integration of visualization tools and a variety of sensors to capture information on a near real-time basis. We will be tailoring these tools to meet the specific timely requirements of a range of users—including battle commanders, pilots, security officers and intelligence analysts.

While much of our work is focused on keeping the peace, we also support the military as it makes its transformation from a Cold War environment to what is called an asymmetric warfare environment. For example, we're helping the Army define the support and logistics it will need in the future, both from an operations and technology standpoint.

We also are helping the nation face the challenges associated with keeping weapons systems in inventory much longer than originally anticipated. By focusing on automated prognostics and diagnostics, we can insert new technologies that allow systems or subsystems to continuously monitor themselves and provide valuable information about their health and readiness. These technologies provide assurance that aging systems are in good working order or can alert people to potential problems so maintenance or repairs can be scheduled.

Can you tell me a little more about what the Laboratory is doing internationally?

We're working with Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union to protect and safeguard the nuclear material and know-how that is left over from the Cold War era. Similarly, we're looking at ways to employ the scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union who were integral to their weapons program. By finding peaceful applications for their expertise, there is less of a chance that they will migrate to other countries, potentially taking nuclear weapons materials, technology or knowledge with them.

I also would highlight the direct impact of the International Nuclear Safety Program. We've been involved in providing in-place safety upgrades to a number of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors to prevent accidents like the one that occurred at Chornobyl. Enhancing the safety of Soviet-designed reactors is critical to energy security, both in the United States and worldwide. Another major accident would have significant implications on the entire nuclear industry, including in this country where there is a renewed interest in nuclear energy as a source of power given recent domestic shortages.

This Laboratory has been known as an environmental technology laboratory. How does national security research and development fit in?

It's not that big of a stretch. We're drawing on the same fundamental science, the same technology and the same knowledge that were developed here to understand the impact of plutonium production on the environment during the height of the original Hanford mission. For example, this Laboratory is a leader in atmospheric sampling. We're turning around those same capabilities and using them to detect nuclear testing or to monitor for compliance with international treaties. It would be virtually impossible to perform a test of a nuclear device or nuclear weapon—above or underground—that the technologies developed at this Laboratory could not detect.

What is unique about Pacific Northwest's contributions in national security?

I think our scientists and engineers are exceptionally good at accessing and integrating the broad technology base and capabilities that exist throughout the Lab—whether in national security, environmental technology, energy or fundamental sciences. The power of this Laboratory is our ability to bring all of our capabilities together in multidisciplinary teams focused upon the needs of the client.

Our ability to integrate across disciplines allows us to take a systems approach to solving problems. We can focus on one aspect of a problem, or come up with a systems solution that addresses the various aspects of the problem ranging from early detection to decision-making and taking action. I'll give you an example of how it works for biological defense. To be able to protect against a biological threat, one needs to understand the fundamental biology associated with the threat to understand how it interacts with the body. With that knowledge, you could begin to develop a vaccine or drug to counter the effects. You also would have to understand fate and transport to understand how the biological agent moves and changes from the time it is released to the time it enters the human body. If you back up even further, you would need to know how a biological agent could be turned into a weapon and how it would be operationally deployed. You've got to have people who understand military operations and how weapons are built as well as biologists and atmospheric scientists. It takes a lot of expertise to systematically solve a problem like defending against biological or chemical weapons—and we have it all under one roof.

What are your lasting impressions about the Laboratory's national security work?

I have been at this Laboratory for four years and from the day I walked in, I've been impressed by the commitment of the people to solving critical national security problems.

From improvements at Soviet-designed nuclear reactors in Ukraine to protecting and controlling nuclear materials, finding peaceful applications for the expertise of weapons scientists in the former Soviet Union and developing technologies for treaty verification, I've seen first-hand how this Lab is making a difference.

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