NNSA Blog

Students from Farragut High School work on their entry for the FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) robotics competition.

Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC, which runs the Y-12 National Security Complex and the Pantex Plant, plays an active role in strengthening the quality of FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) robotics competitions for individual high school–aged teams in Tennessee and Texas. The teams compete head to head on a special playing field with robots they have designed, built and programmed. FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire students’ interest and participation in science and technology.

In Tennessee, CNS sponsors the Smoky Mountains Regional competition as well as individual teams at: Robertsville Middle; L & N STEM; and Austin East, Bearden, Bushland, Caprock, Farragut, Hardin Valley, Oak Ridge, Roane and Webb high schools.

In addition to the company’s sponsorship, CNS engineers work as volunteer mentors on local teams to educate and support tomorrow’s scientists, engineers and mathematicians. “This is exactly the type of activity CNS wants to support,” said Keith Kitzke, a CNS engineer. “This is one of the best activities I have seen for developing team-building and problem-solving skills in high school students.”

Read more about how CNS supports science, technology, engineering and math through robotics on the Y-12 website.

Apr 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

As part of NNSA’s commitment to protecting and preserving the nation’s nuclear deterrent, NNSA collaborates with the Department of Defense (DOD) in the Joint Munitions Program (JMP). This year marks more than 30 years of partnership through the JMP to improve and invest in innovative technology in pursuit of mutual long-term national security objectives.

A memorandum of understanding signed in 1985 by DOD and DOE provides the basis for the JMP—a cooperative, applied research and development program in munitions-related technology. The JMP aims to solve emerging problems and create advanced technologies of interest to both DOE and DOD under a jointly funded program.  

While most of the research is performed at NNSA’s national laboratories—Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia—all experimental endeavors are planned, monitored, and executed by laboratory representatives from both departments. Mutual collaboration improves the effectiveness, stability, affordability, and efficiency of munitions for the armed services, while at the same time benefiting NNSA’s research objectives.

As national laboratory scientists pair their understanding of physics related to weapons components with access to DOD experimental data, they enhance NNSA’s modeling and simulation capabilities for verifying the nation’s nuclear stockpile. The JMP work also aids NNSA lab recruitment efforts by offering numerous opportunities for technical staff through collaborative professional development.

The JMP supports the President’s commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons by supporting the increased role of conventional weapons to deter and respond to non-nuclear attack, as described in the Nuclear Posture Review report.

Projects in the JMP are organized in five focus areas: Initiation, Fuzing, and Sensors; Energetic Materials; Computational Mechanics and Material Modeling; Warhead & Penetration Technology; and Munitions Lifecycle Technologies. Learn more about the JMP on NNSA’s website and from the Department of Defense.

Apr 26, 2016 at 11:00 am

Building 9204-2E is one of the Y¬12 buildings that the Extended Life Program would help.

The challenge is this: Preserve two key processing facilities at Y-12 National Security Complex. These two facilities will house all nuclear material processing activities not incorporated into the Uranium Processing Facility design.

To better understand what it takes to keep an older, large facility going, a team at Y­12 conducted two workshops. The invitees included other DOE/NNSA sites and outside experts to share knowledge and experience dealing with aging infrastructure.

To read more about the challenge, see the Y-12 website.

Apr 26, 2016 at 10:00 am

Kathleen Alexander is the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation in NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs. She previously held posts at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Dr. Kathleen Alexander

You’re a materials scientist. What about that subject interested you?

When I was in high school in Pittsburgh I was looking at different disciplines to pursue in college, primarily engineering. I had talked to a local (materials science) society, ASM International, and won a college fellowship. When I began studying materials science, I liked the crosscutting nature of the discipline. It touched on physics, engineering, math, and had broad applications to real-world problems. Look around you – materials are everywhere.

You have a long title. Just what is your job?

I oversee the portfolio in NNSA Defense Programs that has to do with experimental and computational sciences. Our NNSA facilities conduct experiments and tests, and we perform analysis and evaluation of those tests for stockpile stewardship. We are the core research, development, test and evaluation program that develops and validates these tools, which often are computer-based models and simulations. We also validate the computer models that go into these tools and validate how well the computer simulations perform compared to reality. We have a variety of experimental facilities that validate those simulations in appropriate conditions, which often involve extremes of pressure, temperature, strain rate, etc.

In the future, what will be the main science drivers in certifying the stockpile?

Primarily, they’re questions related to materials aging, safety and security. The bottom line is we’re regularly assuring the safety, security and reliability of the stockpile.

What areas most need new researchers and scientists?

I mentioned materials aging, so obviously materials scientists, but also computational scientists. Distinct from that are computer scientists, in terms of ensuring that the high-performance computing hardware is appropriate for the kinds of codes we need to run. The technology of available computing hardware is evolving. Other key disciplines include high energy density physics, statistics, nuclear physics – it runs the gamut. We cross all disciplines.

Where do programs like the DOE NNSA Stewardship Science Graduate Fellowship fit into this?

They’re key to the pipeline of researchers the program requires. These programs encourage developing the next generation of stockpile stewards. We train leaders in areas relevant to stockpile stewardship – high energy density physics, nuclear science, materials in extremes, hydrodynamics – and not necessarily on our problems per se. Fellows also get exposure to our national labs through a 12-week practicum, so they get to see the important work that’s done, and they get to visit the NNSA national laboratories.

What’s your advice for graduate students who are interested in stewardship science careers?

I always encourage people to ask questions – that’s the best way to learn – but also to work across disciplines. Our problems are crosscutting and learning to work across disciplines is very important. I think that’s what also keeps our technical staff honed and fresh.

You’re involved in efforts to cut across departments and disciplines. What motivates that?

Some of it is my background in materials science, which crosscuts physics and engineering. Another element is that the nature of challenges we have for stockpile stewardship is cross-disciplinary. The cross-disciplinary focus I have stems from both those factors.

You’ve also studied the future of national laboratory facilities and infrastructure. What changes do you see ahead for them?

I think a renewed understanding of the role of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). Our national labs are FFRDCs. It’s important to the nation that we maintain laboratory capabilities for the long term. I also see more discussions across agencies, especially since budgets are constrained, on how to best utilize the capabilities of all the national security laboratories.

You were a lab researcher and manager for 24 years. How do feel about no longer working at a lab or doing research?

Being a laboratory researcher and manager has been my identity for a long time, but I think it’s important to have federal staff who understand the labs and understand how they really work. I tell people it takes a village to do the science we do and that involves having scientists in federal positions as well. I spent half of those years in a (DOE) Office of Science lab coordinating on crosscutting programs with federal staff

A version of this Q&A appeared in the 2015/2016 edition of Stewardship Science, the annual magazine of NNSA’s Stewardship Science Graduate Fellowship. For more information or to apply for the fellowship, visit online

Apr 25, 2016 at 4:00 pm

Stuart Rawlinson, left, of the Nevada National Security Site, explains the layout of the “P” Tunnel complex to Ambassador Henry Ensher, center, Chargé d’Affaires U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna and others. The “P” Tunnel was used during underground nuclear explosive testing, which ended in 1992, by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to understand the effects of radiation on military hardware and equipment.

Ambassador Ensher visits Y-12 National Security Complex.Ambassador Henry S. Ensher, the top U.S. diplomat at the United States Mission to International Organizations in Vienna, Austria, recently visited two facilities to understand NNSA’s mission better: the Y-12 National Security Complex and the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS).

At Y-12, he got an up-close look at the nuclear operations that help provide the backbone of U.S. national security policy.  “Seeing firsthand Y-12’s infrastructure and activities in support of stockpile stewardship, I can say categorically to the public and to our foreign colleagues in Vienna that when we say our nuclear weapons stockpile is safe, secure and effective, we really mean it,” said Ensher, who assumed his post as the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Vienna in July 2015.

While at NNSS, Ambassador Ensher visited additional stockpile stewardship support facilities and those used for NNSA’s nonproliferation missions, including a facility once used for underground nuclear explosive testing – the “P” Tunnel complex. The United States discontinued such testing in 1992. The work NNSA’s nonproliferation programs perform at NNSS helps strengthen the nonproliferation regime, including  the work of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ambassador Ensher, left, sits next to Jim Holt, President, National Security Technologies, as they and others travel by railcar into the “P” tunnel at the Nevada National Security Site. Ambassador Ensher visited the site to gain a better understanding of the role and mission of the site in science-based stockpile stewardship and nonproliferation activities.  “P” tunnel was once the site of underground nuclear explosive testing. The United States has not conducted an underground nuclear explosive test since 1992.Ambassador Ensher stands inside a line-of-sight-pipe used for the Distant Zenith underground nuclear explosive test in 1991, in the “P” Tunnel at Nevada National Security Site. The pipe is 12-feet in diameter where Ambassador Ensher is standing. Military hardware and equipment were, at one time, located inside the pipe and were exposed to a prompt burst of radiation.

Apr 25, 2016 at 12:00 am

The groundbreaking science and technology capabilities that are a part of the NNSA enterprise impact more than just national security and energy. Developments at NNSA’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) literally give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Efforts at LLNL may one day help recover lost memories.

LLNL has a long history in bioengineering technology. Last year, a neural engineer at LLNL took public questions about her work on implantable devices to restore sight, hearing, and movement. The lab helped develop the first FDA-approved bionic eye. LLNL created electrode arrays that power power cochlear implants

LLNL has devised a hybrid biological and electronic platform that could help advance neural prosthetics and increase the efficiency of future computers. LLNL researchers have also been able to 3D-print living, working structures such as blood vessels. LLNL researchers are working on neural interfaces that someday may provide bladder control for people with spinal cord injury. The lab’s scientists also contributed to the world’s first neural system for feeling and movement in prosthetic hands

Most recently, NNSA’s LLNL is working on devices to understand, stop, and recover from memory loss. Researchers hope to create an implantable neural device with the ability to record and stimulate neurons in the brain to help restore memory.

Learn more about how the unique science and technology capabilities in NNSA’s enterprise contribute to medical advances at LLNL’s website

Apr 22, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Each of the five wind turbines at the Pantex Plant is 400 feet tall. They have generated 3 percent more electricity than was expected.

The Texas Panhandle has some of the world’s best winds for creating renewable energy, and the Wind Farm at the Pantex Plant is taking advantage of those winds, generating up to 60% of the energy needs of the plant in an inaugural program, mandated by the White House.

Back in 2013, construction on the one-of-a-kind wind farm began under a unique finance model, known as an Energy Savings Performance Contract. The five turbines, each 400 feet tall, were built on 1,500 acres of federal land adjacent to the main Pantex Plant. The Pantex Renewable Energy Project (PREP) was designed to generate more than 47 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which is enough to power nearly 3,500 homes.

In the first 10 months of operation, the Pantex Wind Farm has produced more than 43,043,000 kWh of electricity; enough energy to satisfy approximately 63% of the Pantex Plant’s power needs… 3% more than expected. To date, more than 73,000,000 kWh’s have been produced and the project is also estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by over 35,000 metric tons per year, the equivalent of removing 7,200 cars from the road each year or planting 850,000 trees. The wind farm will play a key role in helping Pantex achieve President Obama’s directive that the federal government lead the way in clean energy and energy efficiency, with his administration’s goal of obtaining 20 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020.

In addition to providing electricity for Pantex operations, PREP serves as the keystone for an ongoing collaboration with Texas Tech University (TTU) to make Pantex a leader in innovation within the wind energy sector. TTU and the NNSA Production Office (NPO) recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding that would combine resources to study the wind farm located adjacent to the Pantex plant.

Construction on the one-of-a-kind turbines began in 2013.

Apr 22, 2016 at 12:00 am

NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) puts world-class science to work keeping military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians safe through its Advanced Homemade Explosives Course. Instructor Virginia Manner, a Los Alamos staff scientist in the High Explosives Science and Technology group runs the course with co-leader Margo Greenfield of the Shock and Detonation Physics group.

EOD techs have a tough job. Their lives—and others’ lives, too—depend on how much they know. From all branches of the service, EOD techs routinely get the call to dismantle homemade explosives (HMEs) or neutralize HME factories in war zones.

The label “explosives” covers a wide range of substances that are characterized by liberating energy and producing heat under a stimulus, like an impact or spark. In the Los Alamos course, the EOD techs learn a lot about the homemade kind, defined loosely as any improvised concoction of readily available material that can blow up, often in an improvised explosive device (IED).

EOD techs talk about “getting left of the boom,” which means working before the bomb goes off. “Right of the boom” means it’s already blown up. The Los Alamos course is all about working on that left side, safely. To that end, every 6 weeks for 5 days, about 24 techs from the Air Force, Marines, and Navy come to learn more about how bad guys whip up explosives in makeshift labs.

The course provides an overview of general HME characteristics, the hazards, and related safety precautions. 45-minute lectures are balanced by 2-hour labs. Students also work with unidentified explosives on the outdoor range and explore simulated labs.

The HME course is made possible by the many scientists, engineers, and technicians in multiple divisions throughout the Laboratory. The diverse team of practicing bench scientists, who teach the course at Los Alamos, distinguishes it from other courses. The Lab currently has more than 20 instructors with expertise in explosives.

“Research can sometimes be isolated from current real-world applications,” Manner said. “It’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever done.”

Greenfield agrees: “All the instructors feel that way, and that’s why it’s so successful. We know we’re increasing the EOD techs’ overall safety. We’re using world-class science to save lives on today’s battlefields.”

Watch LANL’s video on the course to learn more or visit the website to read the full feature article.

Apr 20, 2016 at 10:07 am

Marianne Walck, vice president of Sandia’s California site and the Energy & Climate program, and Ruben Grijalva, executive director of California Fire and Rescue Training Authority, sign a memo of agreement between the two entities.

Sandia National Laboratories and the California Fire and Rescue Training Authority (CFRTA) recently signed a memorandum of agreement to develop new concepts and capabilities for emergency planning, exercise and response.

The agreement was signed by Marianne Walck, vice president of Sandia’s California site and the Energy & Climate program, and by Ruben Grijalva, executive director of CFRTA, which includes the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District and the Sacramento Fire Department.

“The strong relationship between Sandia and the CFRTA is yielding a number of benefits,” Walck said. “The partnership provides Sandia with operational partners to help us transition technology to emergency managers and first responders. At the same time, the CFRTA is gaining access to technologies that can enhance preparedness across the state. This is a perfect opportunity for Sandia to deploy technology in the field to test operational concepts, evaluate readiness and refine technology requirements.”

Grijalva said the agreement between Sandia and CFRTA provides a framework of cooperation in a variety of vital areas of emergency response planning and training at the California Exercise Simulation Center (CESC) in Mather.

Read more.

Apr 19, 2016 at 4:00 pm

Scientists at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) use seismology to determine the details—location, yield, and type—of explosions, as part of its mission to identify and locate possible nuclear explosions.

For example, a country might hope its underground containment of a nuclear test allows it to go unnoticed, because the rest of the world thinks the resulting seismic event is an earthquake. In the interest of national security and global nuclear threat monitoring, NNSA scientists have developed the tools to differentiate between the two.

LANL has approximately 70 experts, organized into teams, who work to provide near real-time analysis and assessment of foreign nuclear weapons programs and tests. For example, the Ground-based Nuclear Detonation Detection (GNDD) team, comprising scientists from the lab’s Earth and Environmental Sciences division, look in the atmosphere, oceans, and underground to analyze explosions.

The GNDD team develops measurement and analysis systems for nuclear-event monitoring agencies and provides analysis in direct support of NNSA’s nuclear treaty verification mission, including support for the Limited Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, Threshold Test-Ban Treaty, and the current testing moratorium under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

“We have developed seismic expertise, and we apply it effectively to understand and monitor nuclear testing,” said Terry Wallace, LANL’s Principal Associate Director for Global Security. “The Laboratory is one of the places where we see people devoting careers to understanding what other nations are doing in the areas of nuclear testing and technology. We support the Nation in its efforts to monitor nuclear programs and verify adherence to nuclear arms control treaties.”

Understanding seismic events requires a detailed understanding of geology and the ability to predict subsurface reactions to the explosive shock of a nuclear blast. Seismologists can calculate the event location and yield by using data from seismic stations around the globe. Using techniques developed to study nuclear (and conventional explosives) tests, scientists analyze data to develop a more complete understanding of the nature of the explosion.

Learn more about NNSA’s nonproliferation mission and LANL’s work for NNSA.

Apr 19, 2016 at 9:51 am