National laboratories accelerate counterterrorism efforts

The laboratories, which traditionally have focused on research and technology related to nuclear weapons, are being called on to deal with fresh concerns about chemical and biological attacks, Cochran said.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -U.S. national laboratory researchers have accelerated their work on developing technologies to counter weapons of mass destruction since Sept. 11, laboratory officials told Global Security Newswire.

"Sept. 11 had an enormous impact on our laboratory," said Sandia National Laboratories Director C. Paul Robinson, at the Twelfth Annual Sandia National Laboratories International Arms Control Conference.

Everyone wants to contribute to domestic security and the war on terrorism, and researchers are working hard, Robinson said. "I've never seen so many cars in the parking lot at night," he said of Sandia.

Sandia's current $1.8 billion budget is hundreds of millions of dollars higher than in previous years, Robinson said. The growth is mostly due to counterterrorism efforts, he said.

Before Sept. 11, both Sandia and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories had developed devices related to materials used in weapons of mass destruction, but after the attacks, laboratory workers were called in for several activities, including:

  • Assessing damage at the World Trade Center site. Lawrence Livermore workers used detection devices to monitor toxic material in the atmosphere, such as freon and asbestos, Cochran said.
  • Assisting the Postal Service with its anthrax detection and treatment activities, Robinson said.
  • Checking congressional buildings after an anthrax-laced letter arrived at Senator Tom Daschle's office in Washington, said Laboratory Executive Officer Ron Cochran.
  • Taking atmospheric measurements near Salt Lake City during the Olympics to detect any possible toxic agents, Cochran said.

The threat of chemical and biological attacks presents a more complex problem than traditional nuclear issues, Cochran said, but U.S. researchers are accumulating expertise and many devices and methods developed to detect or protect nuclear material are equally applicable to biological and chemical material.

For example, Lawrence Livermore laboratory has already developed monitors to detect radiation in containers, such as luggage. That same technology can be used to identify chemical weapons, said Jeffrey Richardson, principal deputy program leader at Lawrence Livermore. Such work was underway before Sept. 11, but now it has been accelerated, he said.

Lawrence Livermore also has one of the world's largest computers, and such computing power allows researchers to build complex models of events, such as how potentially contaminated air flows through buildings and cities, said Cochran. Originally designed to help predict nuclear fallout patterns, the computer modeling can also be used to study the spread of chemical weapons released in a building, Richardson said.

The atmospheric modeling program can even take into account actual weather changes. First responders in the field could link to the supercomputer and on laptops trace the flow of toxic materials in relation to actual weather changes.

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