Answering The Call: How New Mexico’s National Laboratories Used Science And Technology After 9/11 To Help Keep The Country Safe


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed all of us in ways big and small — from our sense of security to how we travel. For New Mexico’s two national security laboratories, it meant quickly pivoting our scientific, engineering and technological resources to respond. As we reflect on the 20th anniversary, we’re reminded of the continuing need to be ready and equipped to counter the evolving threats that face our nation.

Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories had already been doing important work for the U.S. government to keep Americans safe when the Twin Towers and Pentagon were attacked 20 years ago. But it became immediately clear that, in addition to the innovation needed to protect the country from attacks by adversarial nations with defined borders, we must also develop tools to protect Americans from attacks by terrorist groups who operated in multiple countries and were driven by many agendas.

At Los Alamos, that new direction meant using tools we had developed to measure radioactive waste being transported to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to help measure small quantities of radioactive material that could be used to build a dirty bomb, for example. We also created tools to inspect the contents of liquid containers to ensure they didn’t contain explosives, and radiological sensors to scan trucks crossing our borders and ships entering our ports. Los Alamos also developed tools to detect chemical and biological weapons after letters laced with anthrax killed five Americans and sickened 17 more shortly after September 11.

At Sandia, building on our capabilities to modernize and maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal, we established Global and Homeland Security portfolios with programs ranging from nonproliferation to biosecurity to the use of physical security innovations for critical asset protection. We made a strategic commitment to strengthen our cybersecurity expertise through creation of the Cyber Engineering Research Institute. High-performance computing became an essential tool to support the U.S. government’s effort to better understand potential threats and vulnerabilities. Sandia fielded technologies to protect security and military personnel and developed the X-Ray Toolkit, a software that helps bomb technicians rapidly analyze suspicious devices.

Of course, for both laboratories, the attacks also forced a new focus on site security, with a significant increase in the number of protective forces and modification to their training and procedures to defend against more robust threats. Furthermore, security was ramped up at inspection points for trucks carrying cargo and roads were rerouted to keep vehicles a safe distance from buildings.

At every turn, we asked ourselves, “What will keep our workforce and the nation safe?”, and we acted accordingly.

As we look to the future, we know that the threats to our nation’s security will continue. We also know that we’ll need to advance our technology to counter those threats. Fortunately, New Mexico’s two national laboratories will continue to answer the call and use our scientific, engineering and technological expertise to help keep Americans safe. 

Thom Mason is director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. James Peery is director of Sandia National Laboratories.