NNSS News (July - September 2019)
RSL’s Aviation crew saves stranded family
"It was a good day."
On a hot, crystal-clear summer day, Remote Sensing Laboratory (RSL) Captain Mike Toland and Co-pilot Sue Roberts were piloting their Bell 412 helicopter over Lake Mojave, along the Nevada/Arizona border. In back of the helicopter were mission scientist Avery Guild-Bingham and technician Chris Cacace. All were conducting a radiation mapping mission. Below them, small specks of vacationers mingled along the lake’s edge, enjoying the sun and water.
Suddenly, the crew noticed a family stranded on another part of the lake. Nearby was a broken-down vehicle. The family, not in view of other people on the lake, waved frantically at the helicopter. As Toland circled back around the stranded family, it became apparent that they were in need of immediate assistance. The crew attempted a landing in the area near them, but were unable to complete the landing safely: the swirling of dusty air caused by the rotating blades would have greatly restricted visibility.
The crew marked the family's position via latitude/longitude coordinates and then climbed and flew to an area with cell phone reception. From the back, Cacace called 911 to provide emergency dispatch the coordinates. Although the emergency dispatch acknowledged the call, they had several other emergency calls they were working on: “We’ll respond as soon as we can.” Undaunted, the crew continued with the mission—yet kept a watchful eye on the family.
Forty-five minutes later, still hovering in the air, there was no response from dispatch. The crew called 911 again: The family was now number four in line for rescue.
With desert temperatures approaching 110 degrees, the crew knew there was no time to waste. They flew in another direction and flagged down a passing private boat. Waving a hand outside the window, signaling "this way," the crew guided the boat to the family. Once the crew was sure that the boat had made contact with them, our Aviation crew completed their mission and returned to Nellis Air Force Base for a safe landing.
“I’m so glad that we could help this family out. Mike, Chris, Avery and I all worked incredibly well together to come up with a very creative way to communicate with the stranded family and the boat that helped with the rescue. I’m so honored to work with such a great team,” said Roberts.
Added Toland, “I’m very proud of our flight crew that day. In the middle of a challenging mission, we were able to notice the unusual situation on the ground. With some quick thinking in the helicopter, we came up with a plan to get this family to safety. They were rescued, and on top of that, we completed our mission. It was a good day.”
Small, but mighty: New, compact Falcon Dense Plasma Focus device is here
Scientists at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) recently built and tested a brand new Dense Plasma Focus (DPF) device, sponsored by the Site-Directed Research and Development (SDRD) Program. Unlike other NNSS DPF systems, which are large-scale, stationary research platforms, the newly developed Falcon DPF is a compact, portable system that can be used to accomplish mobile applications.
“This work has opened a new frontier of pulsed power and plasma science at the NNSS and enhanced our nation’s nuclear defense capabilities,” says NNSS’ Senior Engineer Brady Gall, who is leading the project as a principal investigator.
The DPF systems at the NNSS reliably create very short, high-intensity neutron pulses. This has made the technology a useful tool in recent and upcoming Stockpile Stewardship experiments. In principle, these characteristics also make the DPF an ideal tool to detect the presence of special nuclear material (SNM) when it may be hidden or inaccessible to visual inspection. However, in practice, the NNSS’ existing large-scale DPF systems were incompatible with these applications because they require small, portable and easy-to-operate neutron generators. The Falcon DPF system was created to address this need for a potent short-pulse neutron source that could be easily transported and operated.
The goal of the project was to shrink the NNSS’ existing and well-established DPF capabilities to a mobile form-factor while maintaining excellent neutron performance and uncompromising dedication to safety. The first two years of the project were used to design a new plasma source and pulsed power driver, research and test new lightweight hardware and energize the system for neutron production. In the project’s third year, the team has partnered with scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to use the Falcon DPF to detect SNM. A preliminary experiment at the NNSS’ Radiological/Nuclear Countermeasures Test and Evaluation Complex facility was just completed and a test at the Device Assembly Facility is scheduled for later this summer. These tests will demonstrate that the Falcon DPF can be used in mobile applications.
“This was one of the most invigorating projects I have worked on here at the NNSS,” said Master Technologist Michael Blasco, who worked on the project with Engineer Michael Heika and Technologist Joseph Bellow. “We were faced with many challenges along the way, but as a group, we were able to overcome these hurdles and complete our objective of creating a portable DPF.”
Moving forward, the Falcon DPF team anticipates continued development and testing of portable neutron source technology. The team is actively seeking a transition into a long-term programmatic environment and is working to finalize a patent on intellectual property developed as a result of this project. Under the guidance of the SDRD program, the Falcon DPF team has applied for an R&D 100 award, which celebrates new and innovative technologies introduced across a wide range of scientific practices.
Surveying by sky
Remote Sensing Laboratory Aerial Measuring System promotes international partnerships and aerial radiological response capabilities worldwide
Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, radiological aerial training requirements among local, state and federal agencies came to the forefront of the nation’s nuclear incident response mission. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office created the Aerial Measuring System (AMS) Reach-Back Center to provide training and assistance for all aspects of radiological aerial measurement. The AMS mission is to provide a rapid survey of radiation and contamination following a radiological emergency and to provide baseline radiation surveys in advance of major events. Based out of the Nevada National Security Site’s (NNSS) Remote Sensing Laboratory (RSL) at Nellis Air Force Base and Joint Base Andrews, the AMS team has developed the resources to train agencies nationwide and collaborate with AMS organizations internationally.
In 2014, the RSL AMS team held its first WINGS exercise, bringing participants together to see firsthand how science, aviation and flight operations come together to protect the nation. Held again in 2015 and 2016 in different U.S. cities, the exercises involved more than 100 representatives participating in a full-scale drill to conduct contamination mapping with real assets and aircraft. The events served as a premier opportunity for attendees to practice interagency coordination and experience varying systems, equipment and techniques.
Following the success of the WINGS exercises, AMS’ outreach further evolved through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)’s Office of Nuclear Incident Policy and Cooperation following the United States’ assistance with the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. An international symposium at the NNSA’s Nevada Field Office called for an alliance of international expertise on responding to nuclear incidents, resulting in the AMS International Technical Exchange Program, which debuted in 2013.
Having completed its seventh annual session May 13 to 16, 2019, the forum allows AMS representatives from participating nations to share the programmatic and technological developments in their respective countries. Each year features a different theme.
The 2019 session centered on training and exercise topics, which include the coordination process with city, state and federal agencies; software and operations systems; and personnel roles. Representatives from Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Iceland, Japan, Korea, Sweden and Taiwan attended the Technical Exchange, held in North Las Vegas. Featured presentations included updates by the participating nations, data training simulations and demonstrations of a Bell 412 helicopter and radiation detection system.
Windy City procedures
This year’s International Technical Exchange examined training events in Chicago, which boasts a strong AMS presence, to show how the United States utilizes AMS at a regional level.
As it does for national-level events in cities throughout the country, NNSS’ RSL team supports major events in Chicago through the Radiological Assistance Program’s (RAP) Region 5 – one of nine geographic RAP regions across the United States. In addition to aerial surveying, the program conducts ground-based monitoring through backpack equipment, portal monitoring and venue sweeps. RAP 5 is made up of 10 states in the Midwest, which include seven of the largest 50 cities in the country and 26 nuclear power reactors.
AMS’ training partnership with Chicago began in January 2008 at the request of city police. Chicago was the first recipient of AMS’ Mobile Aerial Radiological Surveillance (MARS) course, which involves classroom and tactical exercises.
“They wanted to do radiation detection flights for special events and inquired about radiation detection equipment,” said Frank Moore, RAP 5 principal scientist and equipment coordinator.
AMS educated city emergency response officials about the aerial logistics involved in event organization. These include mission overviews and planning, radiological threats and aerial detection.
Notable events in Chicago that have called upon RAP 5’s capabilities include parades and marathons , political conventions, World Series games and the Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory rally at Grant Park, which involved millions of attendees. Data from RAP 5 surveys for those and other events are provided back to the city of Chicago.
RAP 5 also covers more than 1,000 border miles with Canada. RAP 5 has a longstanding partnership with Customs and Border Protection – conducting training and exercise flights with the agency using simulated release and deposition data.
“A lot of the equipment translates from our folks’ day jobs,” Moore said. “The ability to do training with simulated data is outstanding.”
Training involves an intricate choreography of system installation on the aircraft, mission planning and flight pattern coordination, in-flight system operations, scientist-pilot communications, map products, and data retrieval and analysis.
Another area featured during the International Technical Exchange was federal response simulations in the Unites States. AMS coordinates with federal agencies to conduct stress test responses in major cities, which utilize military aerial assets and field teams along with AMS capabilities. Occurring twice a year in different cities, the full-scale exercises involve the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), and Department of Justice in addition to NNSA’s Office of Nuclear Forensics and the AMS, RAP and consequence management teams.
Alternating the scenario location with each rotation allows agencies to plan for a multitude of outlying factors, from congested airspace to geographic challenges.
“This mainly focuses on federal response to a nuclear weapons incident,” said RSL AMS Senior Scientist Dan Haber. “It tests the ability of DOD and DOE assets to deploy from their respective home bases to a major U.S. city. AMS is more of an enabler to this exercise. AMS provides the data to the players so they can make their decisions.”
As the players execute their roles, AMS provides data to the participants so that they can determine ideal sample locations. Samples are transferred to the DOE National Laboratories, and data is provided back to the modelers for further refinement.
A united front
For those in the AMS field, the International Technical Exchange is an opportunity to benchmark best practices from other nations.
“This allows a lot of connections with other countries,” said RSL-Nellis AMS Manager Piotr Wasiolek, who has led the NNSS’ AMS efforts for 20 years. “This is an exchange of ideas from people who do this work every day.”
While the participating nations are in various stages of their AMS development, the International Technical Exchange allows for collective input for future sessions. At the end of each meeting, the team provides input for the following year’s theme.
“Ten years ago, I insisted we should have AMS capability. The AMS team is very important in a radiological emergency. I take [this information] back to my country and share this meeting,” said BJ Kim, a third-year participant with the Republic of Korea’s Institute of Nuclear Safety.
From supporting the Fukushima response to the present-day International Technical Exchange, RSL AMS holds a legacy of teaming with other nations for greater radiological response and safety measures worldwide.
“The collaboration between Helinuc (France’s AMS) and the American AMS is historical, as we were the first foreign team to work with AMS in a joint survey over NNSS,” said Marine Wansek, a second-year participant with the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. “The objective of participating with the AMS International Technical Exchange is to maintain contact with foreign countries and to learn from each other. From this year’s Technical Exchange, it is clear that training and exercises are fundamental to maintain teams’ readiness for the AMS mission.”
For more information about RSL’s work in homeland security and counterterrorism, visit https://www.nnss.gov/pages/facilities/RSL.html.
A great time to be in Nevada: NNSS renews for the future
The Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) marked significant strides in its modernization plan on July 24, as Nevada Field Office (NFO) Deputy Manager Dave Bowman, Mission Support & Test Services (MSTS) President Mark Martinez and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Associate Administrator for Safety, Infrastructure and Operations James McConnell broke ground for the U1a Complex’s next phase of infrastructure, slated to support the NNSS for generations to come.
The groundbreaking took place during the Deep Dive, a three-day forum from July 23 to 25 in which NNSA leaders attended a series of master asset plan briefings and reviewed infrastructure investments, maintenance, safety and operations programs.
The U1a Complex, an underground laboratory used to conduct subcritical experiments for the Stockpile Stewardship Program, will undergo extensive structural and utility upgrades. Technological advancements include the installation of Scorpius, which will serve as Advanced Sensor Development for radiographic systems to support Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments.
“Nine-hundred sixty feet below us, some of the coolest stuff in all of NNSA is going on right now both in terms of the new things that are being put in, the science and the breakthroughs they represent and the construction and technology that underpins the work,” said McConnell at the U1a Complex. “Those tools are really important, but without people, they’re just machines. The people are really what makes everything go, whether they’re here in Nevada, at our laboratories, plants and sites, or back in Washington, D.C.”
Enhancements include mission-support buildings and an additional shaft, as well as improved water, electrical and communication lines.
“We’re very happy and very proud to be part of an effort to create an environment here on the surface of U1a that is every bit as high quality and worthy of the people as the tools that are being installed below us,” said McConnell. “It is a great time to be in Nevada.”
The investment is part of a larger modernization plan for the NNSS. Mercury, a hub of Site operations, is in the process of transforming its campus through a framework that will consolidate mission support functions. The Site debuted its landmark solar array in 2018, which resulted in the first NNSA Net-Zero-Energy Facility. The solar photovoltaic array currently powers NNSS Fire Station 1, a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-rated facility. The extra power from the solar array will also provide power for Mercury’s Bldg. 1, set to open in September 2019.
“We have the opportunity to preserve the past and boldly go into the future,” said McConnell. “We have a lot of new work across the NNSA, and a lot of it comes to focus right here in Nevada. This is the place where the old meets the new.”
In addition to the 14,000-square-foot Mercury Bldg. 1, which will house emergency management and information technology office functions for the Site, Mercury modernization plans include future buildings for operations, laboratories and training during the course of the next decade. Water, power and communications investments ensure the facilities will support the NNSS workforce for the next 50 years.
“The intent is to make sure the new campus and new buildings are tied in to a brand new and reliable infrastructure,” said Senior Principal Project Manager Frediee Guevara.
Coordination of the multi-phase NNSS modernization continues to be a mission and morale-driven team effort.
“I’m proud of our procurement people who are able to get the contracts, our safety people who are engaged, our outstanding craft support that is there working behind the scenes the issues that need to be resolved, project management, project engineering—all those things that have come to bear and made this a success for all of us,” said Martinez. “This is the beginning of the future.”
Employee achievements were also celebrated through the several dozen NNSS team members recognized with NNSA Excellence Awards, presented for outstanding accomplishments involving innovation, effectiveness, teamwork, overcoming adversity and enabling future success. NNSS’ award-winning project teams were:
- Device Assembly Facility Argus Project of the Year
- Skill of the Worker Program Team
- Activity Level Work Documents Project Team
- Device Assembly Facility Fire Suppression Lead-in Lines Replacement Portfolio Team
- Operation Restore Power Response Team
- NNSS Support of the Kilowatt Reactor Using Stirling Technology Criticality Experiment Team
- Los Alamos National Laboratory - Support of the Kilowatt Reactor Using Stirling Technology Criticality Experiment Team
- Safety Basis Review Team Project Supporting Transuranic Waste Facility Team
- Mercury Solar Project Team
- Mercury Modernization Area Plan & Cultural Resource Team
“The success of this project is built upon a foundation of teamwork and the contributions of many federal, contractor and regulatory staff, and intergovernmental partners that led to the technical, risk- informed strategies through which project completion was accelerated and cost-savings achieved. Most importantly, all work was safely completed with no OSHA-recordable injuries and worker exposures were minimized through careful planning such that none exceeded established safety limits.”
-Rob Boehlecke, EM Nevada Program Manager
NNSS Soils mission complete ahead of schedule and under budget!
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Environmental Management (EM) Nevada Program recently completed the closure of the final Soils site at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) – a feat that is contributing to an estimated $67 million cost-savings and will trim the schedule to complete corrective actions at Soils sites by six years! This achievement was made possible by streamlining the closure process at multiple sites, negotiating closure strategies to be more in-line with worker and environmental risks associated with planned land use scenarios, and avoiding additional costs by obtaining earlier funding for several Soils sites. Soils sites are locations on the NNSS and the Air Force-controlled Nevada Test and Training Range where surface and shallow sub-surface soils were contaminated by historic nuclear testing activities conducted from 1951 until 1992.
Hundreds of women and men safely, professionally and efficiently completed this mission through their dedicated service, some who have supported activities at the NNSS for several decades. In addition to the NNSS scientists, technicians, laboratory support and a myriad of administrative staff, dozens of stakeholders throughout the years have helped shape the path to completion for the 138 contaminated Soils sites on the NNSS. Stakeholders include those representing the State of Nevada and U.S. Air Force, tribes, other intergovernmental liaisons, and members of the Nevada Site Specific Advisory Board, a group that provides recommendations to the DOE EM Nevada Program.
The journey to complete these corrective actions began with characterizing the extent of soil contamination at the NNSS. The EM team used existing historic data wherever possible, including an expansive survey conducted from 1981 through 1986 to identify the level and location of radioactive contamination. This survey was followed by radiological surveys conducted in the 1990s by aircraft flying over the NNSS. This information aided in the identification of contaminated sites that are listed in the Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, a legally-binding agreement signed in 1996 that outlines a schedule of cleanup and monitoring commitments.
While considerable characterization data had been collected, the biggest challenge to overcome was identifying the best remedy for contaminated surface and near-surface soils that cover approximately 6,000 acres on the NNSS. Considerations included worker risks, future land use, and the long-term protection of human health and the environment. Ultimately, through extensive coordination with stakeholders, a radiological dose-based cleanup remedy was selected and the federal and contractor team kicked into high gear in 2007. Other challenges followed and included the discovery of unexpected contaminants such as unexploded ordnance and hazardous waste – which were safely mitigated by the skilled and experienced field crews. Throughout the journey, the Soils team incorporated efficiencies to ensure the judicious use of taxpayer funding, such as validating aerial and terrestrial walkover surveys which resulted in reduced sampling.
The first NNSS Soils site to undergo investigation, remediation and closure was the T-1 site in June 2009. The T-1 site was the location of four different nuclear tests detonated from atop towers in the 1950s. Remediation activities conducted at that site include the removal and recycling of lead objects. The last of the NNSS Soils sites approved for closure at the end of February 2019, are a group of six sites where chemical and radiological contamination resulted primarily from weapons-related testing. For these sites and the others in between, reports are available that summarize the efforts of dedicated professionals who performed the necessary historical record searches, radiological surveys, sampling, analyses, remediation activities and documentation to support completion of the NNSS Soils sites. With the completion of the NNSS Soils Project, the team is focused on closing the final, six remaining Soils site on the Nevada Test and Training Range by the end of 2019.
Outside of Site, NNSS Fire & Rescue serves Southern Nevada
NNSS F&R paramedic services represent an in-kind contribution of $285,000 annually to Nye County
The Nevada National Security Site’s (NNSS) Fire & Rescue (F&R) team serves as a fundamental resource not only for the 1,360-square-mile Site and more than 3,000 employees, but also for the community of Nye County.
Of the 215 calls for service NNSS F&R received in 2018, 64 were for mutual aid, a support request from a nearby agency. The Site’s proximity to surrounding communities means the NNSS F&R team members are often the closest first responders, allowing them to arrive on scene and begin providing assistance quicker than other agencies. NNSS response areas can extend from a range of Nevada State Route 160 into Beatty, where NNSS F&R has assisted with patient transfers, to Tonopah.
“NNSS F&R has become an integral part of Southern Nevada,” said NNSS F&R Chief Brian J. Dees. “We’re proud to continue this legacy through our work in the field with other agencies and through our impact with civilians in the community.”
When a request for mutual aid comes through, the need is assessed along with Site coverage capability. Once coordinated, units are then released to assist the agency.
Manned by 71 employees, including four senior staff members and one administrator, NNSS F&R is equipped and staffed to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Operating on three 56-hour shifts, Mercury’s Station 1 consists of nine firefighters and five paramedics, and Area 6’s Station 2 comprises six firefighters and two paramedics. Incidents are categorized as fire, hazmat, medical, non-medical or mutual aid.
“What we bring is manpower,” said former NNSS F&R Chief John Gamby, who recently retired after serving the NNSS for 40 years. “In 2018, we went out to Nye County when they had a couple major fires. We were able to help and transport six patients in the Pahrump community. We filled that void so they could keep their units on the fire.”
This type of assist is representative of the long-term relationship NNSS F&R holds with Nye County. As Nye County emergency responders coordinate with the Site to conduct exercises annually, NNSS F&R also utilizes Nye County’s burn facility to complete training requirements.
Offered at no charge, NNSS F&R paramedic services represent an in-kind contribution of $285,000 annually to Nye County. NNSS F&R can often offer higher levels of care for medical and drug administration needs.
The collaboration has also benefitted the NNSS; Nye County has provided funding to NNSS F&R employees for training opportunities beneficial to both agencies. Mutual aid councils are conducted monthly between the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Nevada Field Office and Nye County.
NNSS F&R’s reach also extends beyond Nye County borders. The team fundraises for the Firefighters of Southern Nevada Burn Foundation, which provides resources and care for victims of fires and catastrophic events in addition to donating toys to children in need during the holidays.
A staple at community events, F&R is part of annual community parades, remembrance days, and school and holiday events. Because government vehicles cannot be used for unofficial business, F&R is well-known for its 1950 Seagrave Fire Engine, which employees purchased through donations and fundraising. The truck was fully restored by F&R so the organization could have a presence at local gatherings like the local children’s holiday celebration.
For more information about NNSS F&R, please visit https://www.nnss.gov/pages/facilities/FandR.html.
NNSS Scientist Marylesa Howard recipient of 2019 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
Among the recipients of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), announced by President Donald J. Trump July 2, is the NNSS’ own Dr. Marylesa Howard.
“The PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government to outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology,” the White House’s announcement says.
Howard, an NNSS signal processing and applied mathematics scientist, is the sole Nevada recipient. A highly published researcher, she is an influential leader among scientists in Nevada, at the U.S. National Laboratories and at universities across the nation.
“I see this as being much bigger than me,” Howard said. “This is also about the NNSS being recognized for the powerful research enabled here. I came to the NNSS for a job, but what I’ve found here is much more than a job. It is a mission I’m proud to serve, groundbreaking research to which I can contribute and a sense of belonging among the people with whom I work. This is an absolute honor, one of which I would have never dreamed.”
Her capstone accomplishment is a new approach to image segmentation, where an automated method quantitatively determines which parts of an image correspond to different objects in a street scene, different materials in an X-ray image or different components of an item on an assembly line. Howard invented the first statistical method that allows a user to characterize parts of an image, but then automatically characterizes the rest of the image, even with the ability to correct any mistakes made by the user.
This novel technique has been incorporated into a software tool that has been copyrighted and licensed to Sandia National Laboratories, which is using the software in its thermal battery design department; Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is using the software in material studies; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which uses the approach to analyze explosives-driven experiments; and many universities, which are using Howard’s ideas in a wide range of sciences. In collaboration with MIT, this research was featured by the American Institute of Physics as one of its SciLight accomplishments of 2017.
“Marylesa’s technical contributions are vital to the security of our country,” said Mark Martinez, president of Mission Support and Test Services, the management and operating contractor for the NNSS. “Her work is integral to our mission, and I’m very proud to have her as part of the NNSS team.”
For more information about PECASE, see the White House’s release.