While diplomats struggle to resolve the Korean nuclear stalemate, U.S. weapons laboratories are developing gizmos to monitor nuclear proliferation, ranging from microphones hidden in foliage to satellite-based sensors that "see" atomic pollutants.
Facing big budget cuts, the labs have targeted a new enemy: small nuclear-armed nations and terrorist groups that may emerge from the rubble of the Cold War.Lab officials foresee a world awash with fissionable nuclear materials from dismantled Russian bombs and bristling with nuclear weapons and missiles sold by renegade nations such as North Korea.
North Korea is a major focus of Livermore's effort "to stem and roll back the worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons," Lawrence Livermore spokesman Jeff Garberson said.
He declined to reveal details of the semi-secret anti-proliferation research because of "the sensitivity of the issues."
The research - called "counter-proliferation" - is emerging as the weapons labs design gadgets to monitor nuclear smuggling and covert nuclear research.
Among the devices:
- Lasers that can be pointed at smoke plumes from covert nuclear plants and detect the chemical "signatures" of nuclear weapons production, such as the isotope krypton 85.
- Devices that detect gamma rays or other radiation from nuclear weapons or radioactive materials smuggled across a border or into an airport.
- Air-dropped miniature sensors that, from hidden places such as bushes, detect sound, vibrations or magnetic disturbances from suspicious construction projects.
- Satellites that, from hundreds of miles in space, spot evidence of secret nuclear research, such as heat from concealed nuclear reactors, vegetation killed by radioactive pollutants or explosion sites used to test the chemicals that trigger nuclear bombs.
- Devices for analyzing the chemical composition of suspicious chemicals from soil or water samples. One of these - a "mass spectrometer" once the size of a desk that is being shrunk to the size of a suitcase - is being developed at Livermore's Forensic Science Center.
What kinds of chemicals can it detect? Center scientist Donald Prosnitz won't say: "You don't want to tell `them' what we're looking for."
But weapons lab documents indicate chemicals of interest would include isotopes such as krypton 85, a product of nuclear weapons work.
Other monitors under development might remotely detect vibrations or electromagnetic impulses from underground devices - either centrifuges or isotope-separating lasers - used to purify fissionable materials for bombs; might use software to distinguish seismic waves of covert nuclear blasts from those made by mining explosions; and might detect secret bomb tests via their electromagnetic pulses, reflected from the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere.
In the current Korean situation, Livermore scientists have played a key part in analyzing intelligence information from satellites and other sources, sources said.
Promoting its counter-proliferation role is especially important to Livermore now, when a panel advising Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary is deciding how much military work, if any, it should continue to do.
As part of the nation's general non-proliferation program, Livermore has also launched a high-priority effort to develop a field-deployable way to disable terrorist nuclear weapons, lab officials said in the April report to the regents.