The threat reduction issue

Los Alamos plays a pivotal role in keeping the United States—and the world—safe from nuclear threats.

By Nancy Jo Nicholas | April 22, 2022

Threat Reduction Cover Opt
On December 7, 2021, this Atlas V rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The rocket carried a satellite with two payloads on board that were designed and developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. ★ Los Alamos National Laboratory

This special issue of National Security Science magazine celebrates Los Alamos National Laboratory’s contributions to global security and examines how we can best prepare to meet the growing nuclear proliferation challenges of the future. The issue is especially timely given that the Tenth Review Conference for the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons will take place in 2022, after being postponed nearly two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Los Alamos, we can look back with pride at our achievements in support of the NPT over the past 50 years. We also recognize that the NPT’s three pillars—nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy—are more relevant today than ever.

Nuclear technologies and the issues that accompany them have grown immensely across the globe over the past five decades, and even greater changes loom on the horizon. A renaissance in the nuclear power industry in developed and developing nations, in part to address the threat of climate change, has spurred expansion of nuclear engineering and research programs, and as developments in Iran and North Korea demonstrate, the nonproliferation regime faces enormous pressures.

An entire branch of multidisciplinary science—the science of nuclear nonproliferation—is devoted to addressing these challenges. Timely, accurate, science-based tools are indispensable for evaluating proliferation threats to national and global security and giving policy makers the information they need to act.

Easy to describe, but complex to carry out, nonproliferation science tracks peaceful nuclear activity and develops tools and methods to counter the spread of nuclear weapons materials and technologies. Our Laboratory leads in many key areas of nonproliferation work, including, notably, international nuclear safeguards, which verify nuclear materials are secure and not diverted to weapons programs. Since 1957, Los Alamos has partnered with the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop technology for this purpose.

At Los Alamos, we also have an important role in arms control verification. As a weapons laboratory, we are uniquely suited to address challenging issues, such as how to verify treaty compliance while protecting sensitive information. Our scientists and engineers lead research and development efforts in nuclear proliferation detection, which involves monitoring for signs of weaponization by, for example, continuously scanning the atmosphere and tracking earth-shaking events to determine if a weapons test has occurred.

I hope you enjoy reading this issue of NSS and learning more about the past and future nonproliferation endeavors at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Nancy Jo Nicholas
Nancy Jo Nicholas

As the associate Laboratory director for Global Security at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Nancy Jo Nicholas oversees nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear counterproliferation, counterterrorism, and related programs that rely on technical innovation to address complex threats to global security. She has worked at Los Alamos since 1990.