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At Los Alamos, Working Against Their Own Creation

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A view inside Los Alamos National Laboratory as researchers work on a nuclear testing project in 1974. Atomic Energy Commission/Getty Images hide caption

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Atomic Energy Commission/Getty Images

A view inside Los Alamos National Laboratory as researchers work on a nuclear testing project in 1974.

Atomic Energy Commission/Getty Images

America's first atomic bomb was made at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and for decades the work there centered on designing nuclear weapons.

But quietly, for years, some at Los Alamos have puzzled over ways to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

That work is all the more important in the wake of last week's nuclear summit in Washington, D.C., where nearly 50 nations pledged to do more to safeguard dangerous nuclear materials on their territory.

This is not exactly a swords-into-ploughshares story, but it comes close.

An Aim To Stop Proliferation

It's not a story in which the nuclear weapons are themselves turned into pruning hooks. But it is about how the expertise of those who built America's nuclear arsenal is put to use finding ways to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

The story starts deep below ground at one of the buildings at Los Alamos, where Philip Hypes works. He coordinates the lab's research and training in the nuclear nonproliferation field.

"We call this the schoolhouse, because all IAEA inspectors since 1980 have come here to this part of Los Alamos to get training in nondestructive assay."

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The IAEA, of course, is the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors travel all over the world to confirm that states with civilian nuclear programs haven't hidden or diverted dangerous materials for bombs.

"Nondestructive assay" is just a fancy way of saying that Hypes and his team train the inspectors to use radiation detectors to determine what they are handling and how much of it there is.

In this room below ground, there's a Geiger counter on a small table to measure the background radiation levels so that those in the schoolhouse can be sure they are not getting too high a dose.

"You can see we've got lab benches, and we split the inspectors up," Hypes says. "Very small groups, typically two inspectors to one instructor. And they are given the instruments. They measure the materials and actually learn why and how the measurement techniques work."

Training Inspectors

Los Alamos has trained some 5,000 inspectors for the IAEA over 30 years. They've come from more than 40 countries, according to David Bracken, a former deputy group leader.

"Every country that has sent someone to the agency as an inspector, we've [trained] them," he says.

The program is a good deal for both sides. The IAEA gets the benefit of Los Alamos' expertise. The lab's engineers designed several generations of radiation detectors, small and large. The inspectors get trained by the same people who designed the equipment, and they have access to the substantial stockpile of plutonium and highly enriched uranium that the lab possesses.

The U.S. gains enormous influence in the international effort to keep states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

One set of detectors can determine whether a sample is plutonium or uranium.

Another kind of detector is round and heavy, and can accommodate cylindrical cans in its core. This equipment is used to determine how much plutonium or uranium may be present.

The job of the IAEA inspector is to confirm whether the declarations a government makes about its nuclear materials are true or not. So, the inspectors must be able to determine and measure unknown nuclear items in the field, says training coordinator Peter Santi.

"We give them an item. We say, we don't know what this is. We think we have some ideas, but please tell us what it is. What that does is give them the confidence to be able to analyze the data and determine what's going on, what type of material it is, how much is there," Santi says. "Determine an unknown and give it properties, and say this is what I know about it."

These techniques are especially valuable when inspectors go into Iran, which they do frequently. For years, the government of Iran has provided only partial information to the IAEA about its nuclear programs, so these inspections — the ability to determine the presence of various grades of uranium or plutonium — are crucial.

All the inspectors who go to Iran were trained at Los Alamos, says Hypes.

"One of the inspectors that was recently sent was being taught by Pete [Santi] here the week before, and then the next week was put on the team that was sent to Iran," he says.

Other Los Alamos Programs

There are a lot more activities going on at Los Alamos in the effort to contain the spread of nuclear weapons. Among them, the lab builds demonstration models of equipment installed at ports to monitor shipping containers for dangerous nuclear materials.

It cooperates with many individual countries to provide radiation detectors that are permanently installed at nuclear facilities to keep an eye on the materials around the clock without the presence of human inspectors.

And it works on creating safe ways to move dangerous nuclear materials over long distances.

The goal is to make the world safer from the very weapons Los Alamos was created to build.