LLNL’s global security mission includes developing scientific and technological solutions to address the evolving landscape of nuclear proliferation threats. This means monitoring and detecting weapons of mass destruction as well as preventing access to and availability of related materials and infrastructure. As Computing’s Meghan McGarry explains, “Nuclear weapon proliferation and nuclear energy issues are in the news almost every week. Understanding the associated risks and implications is important for understanding how the world operates.”

Accordingly, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has announced a new consortium that partners universities with national laboratories to advance nonproliferation-related research in academia. The NNSA’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development (DNN R&D) will fund the Monitoring, Technology, and Verification (MTV) Consortium for 5 years, with McGarry serving as LLNL’s point of contact. The Consortium will formally kick off when the academic year begins. (The Lab also has a role in two other university-focused NNSA partnerships: the Consortium for Enabling Technologies and Innovation and the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium.)

Research Alignment

Led by the University of Michigan, the MTV Consortium includes 13 other universities who will work with subject-matter experts at national laboratories on fundamental nuclear physics, nuclear explosion monitoring, and signatures of nuclear proliferation. “These focus areas will align university research with national needs,” states McGarry.

A range of specialized research falls under the Consortium’s purview. McGarry continues, “We plan to explore everything from understanding the basic physics of nuclear weapons to identifying the signatures of a nuclear weapons program.” For example, the Consortium aims to investigate the biological and chemical mechanisms of radioisotope transport in the environment, computer modeling of the nuclear fuel cycle, creation of new safeguard technologies, and ways to establish explosion monitoring campaigns (such as via seismic indicators).

“The U.S.’s nonproliferation needs are becoming more complex, so the Lab and the country need a highly trained workforce to address these issues. Furthermore, a sizeable portion of our workforce will be eligible for retirement within a few years,” says McGarry. As LLNL’s ambassador in the MTV Consortium, she will facilitate collaboration between the institutions and help aspiring students identify job prospects at the Lab.

The Consortium’s students and faculty will have internship and residency opportunities at the Lab, and they will be able to take advantage of LLNL’s high performance computing capabilities and software tools. McGarry notes, “Lab researchers will provide expert-level guidance and mentoring to Consortium members. We hope to engage students throughout their PhD programs and help them formulate research questions.”

Meghan McGarry speaking at a podium
Figure: Meghan McGarry spoke at the NNSA’s Consortium for Verification Technology workshop, held at the University of Michigan in 2018. She was invited to speak about her experience transitioning from a consortium-funded position to a national laboratory, thanks to the skills, expertise, and professional network she developed along the way. (Photo by John Rodriquez, Jr., University of Michigan.)

When Physics Meets Computing

McGarry holds a PhD in experimental physics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. While there, she completed a postdoctoral appointment in computational nuclear engineering and contributed to another DNN R&D consortium. McGarry joined LLNL’s Global Security Computing Applications Division in 2017.

“Modeling and simulation are fundamental aspects of most technical PhD programs. The field of physics is complicated enough that we need advanced computing tools to move forward,” she states. “Nonproliferation is a critical global security need to which I can apply my skills. A physicist can help solve these problems.”

Beyond the MTV Consortium, McGarry’s workload includes two other global security projects that rely on modeling and simulation. She contributes to the code of a project focusing on uranium enrichment physics and is principal investigator for the Quantitative Intelligent Adversary Risk Assessment project (QIARA), which evaluates infrastructure resilience and adversary hazards. QIARA leverages LLNL’s Squirrel algorithm to discover vulnerabilities in the power grid.

The MTV Consortium stands to benefit from McGarry’s multifaceted expertise. Scot Olivier, LLNL’s program leader for Nonproliferation Research and Development, says, “The university consortia supported by DNN R&D, including MTV, represent a critical pipeline of talent for the Lab. As a recent alumna of one of these consortia, Meghan is ideally suited to help maximize the effectiveness of this pipeline, as well as serving as a great exemplar of the value of this pipeline for the Lab.” Division leader Jamie Van Randwyk adds, “This is a great fit for both Meghan and the university consortium. Her nomination as the Lab’s point of contact speaks to her technical acumen.”