Labs Collaborate on RFID for Nuclear Weapons Management at Los Alamos

By Claire Swedberg

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  • Los Alamos National Laboratory is teaming with Auburn University’s RFID Lab with joint research in RFID deployment to track nuclear weapon components in glove box storage.
  • The technology could help Los Alamos officials identify weapon parts more efficiently, with less radiation exposure to workers.

Some assets are so critical, so sensitive and potentially hazardous, that tracking them manually poses risks to staff and the potential for errors. And when it comes to nuclear weapons there is no room for error.

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is aiming to automatically track nuclear weapon components inventory. The lab’s goal has been to determine how RFID operates around metal, through radiation-shielding glove boxes, and ensure 100 percent read accuracy.

With that in mind, LANL is six months into a multi-year collaboration with Auburn University RFID Lab on joint research projects.

The collaboration is part of a larger Weapons Production–Technology and Nuclear Training Program (WP-TNT) initiative, aimed at introducing RFID tracking and analytical data processing techniques. An RFID system that meets LANL’s requirements will help optimize its inventory management, and ensure minimal exposure to radiation for employees, said Ray Ferry, LANL’s program lead.

Investigating RFID Benefits in Inventory Efficiency

LANL is charged by the U.S government to produce nuclear weapon components, including pits that serve as the plutonium core of the weapon. To enhance production efficiency, Ferry said his team brings new technologies into the weapons assembly mission to boost efficiencies in processes.

About two years ago, LANL began investigating the benefits UHF RFID technology might bring to its production operations. The lab designed its own UHF RFID tag that could operate well in a highly metallic environment and selected 2024 RFID Journal Award winner Zebra RFID readers for their effectiveness in reading those tags.

When it came to deploying a solution onsite however, there is no other site exactly like LANL and that means unique requirements, Ferry pointed out. The lab could benefit from academic research into the environment and the tag performance requirements, he added.

Leveraging the Testing and Know How of Students

To that end, LANL began collaborating with Auburn’s RFID Lab in late 2023.  With the three-year program, LANL wants to better understand how RFID functions on round metal objects similar in size to a paint can lid, including how tag orientation affects functionality as well as the effects of other tagged metal objects around each tag.

For instance, storage of pits (also known as canisters or cans) often consists of many pits clustered together, potentially affecting RF signal strength.

The Auburn RFID Lab includes an RF Chamber within which students and researchers can capture RF measurements within specific parameters, and they can run experiments to help identify the right technology and environment for LANL’s needs.

No Room for Missed Reads

Unlike many RFID users, such as retailers or logistics companies, LANL has no room for error in an RFID system. Nuclear material and components require 100 percent read accuracy, so in the long term, LANL wants a certified measure of what installation would provide that fail-proof read functionality. Transmissions need to work every time, with every tag, regardless of the orientation.

Additionally, LANL wants to investigate whether tags could be read within a hazard-insulated glove box in which radioactive materials can be stored. Glove boxes provide the humans working in the area with greater protection from radiation, even if they use gloves through the box walls, to handle the highly toxic material.

If canisters or plutonium are stored in the glove box with RFID tags and those tags could be read without opening it, data could be captured without requiring any exposure by employees, LANL posits.

Glove Box Design for Testing

So LANL is providing Auburn’s RFID Lab with the design for a glove box similar to the type that stores plutonium for weapon production. The university team will build its own such box, akin to those used in the laboratory. A typical glove box is 30 feet by 8 feet and 4 feet high.

LANL hopes the university lab can determine if a tag on a can could read with an RFID reader, outside the glove box, through the box walls, if a reader could be installed inside in one corner, or if four readers would be a better alternative, each in one corner of the glove box interior.

“Those are questions we don’t have answers to yet,” said Ferry. “We need to know: can the RF signals get in and out [of the glove box] and what is the attenuation of those signals.”

Reducing Exposure to Radiation

One of the key goals for LANL is to reduce radiation exposure for its workers to levels that are “as low as reasonably allowed (ALARA).” By capturing an inventory count of canisters or other components with RFID tag reads, a stock count that might have taken two weeks can be accomplished in minutes.

“That’s a saving of cost, a saving of time but also is a serious reduction in radiation exposure to our workers. And that is a significant issue to this laboratory and to the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration], the [U.S. Department of Energy] and the government,” stated Ferry.

Therefore, an initial application for RFID may be a handheld device to read tags quickly, without a line of sight, to move workers more quickly in and out of storage spaces.

“The goal is identifying the cans all at once, sparing workers from too much exposure,” he said.

Other Uses

Another potential use case for RFID can be found in automating the tracking of gloves used at the glove box. These gloves— installed in the walls of the box— enable workers outside the box to handle material inside it, limiting exposure to radiation.

Because radiation deteriorates the gloves overtime, LANL closely manages the gloves and how long they have been used, to ensure they are replaced at the right time. Currently that is a human-time intensive effort. Workers must go to each glove box to select each glove, one at a time, and check each serial number to access information about how old the glove is, or how long it has been in use.

“If you take an RFID reader and read the tag on the glove and you have the information stored on the computer now you’re processed goes from weeks to minutes,” said Ferry.

Additionally, LANL intends to conduct pilots to investigate how RFID technology itself (such as tags) responds in a radioactive environment over time. Such research in the past has been limited, since few facilities in private industry could expose RFID technology to high levels of radiation.

Sharing LANL Standards with Private Enterprises

Once Auburn’s RFID Lab is able to define the best RFID orientation and application for NNSA’s requirements, Ferry said that information can be shared with the private industry to help them know how to achieve certification for their technology to operate in similar, challenging environment.

Auburn already sets standards for tag manufacturers and hardware manufacturers for the RFID industry “and so we are working with them for them to establish a standard so that the commercial industry knows what to build to meet our standards.”

This partnership will help enhance curriculum and educational opportunities for Auburn students, according to Justin Patton, Director of the Auburn RFID Lab, in a press release.

So far, said Ferry, “interacting with the students has been fantastic. Their enthusiasm and willingness to get into real technical work is amazing. We’re really looking forward to working with the Auburn students and seeing what ideas they bring to the table.”

The existing contract covers a three-year period ending in September 2026, after which an extension could be considered.

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