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Pentagon Weighs Enlarging Nuclear Surveillance Program

A North Korea's Unha-3 rocket lifts off from the Sohae launch pad in Tongchang-ri Dec. 12, 2012.

A North Korea's Unha-3 rocket lifts off from the Sohae launch pad in Tongchang-ri Dec. 12, 2012. // AP file photo

The Defense Department is mulling an expansion of a system that essentially eavesdrops on the environment for indications of foreign nuclear tests.  

The Air Force Technical Applications Center's atomic monitoring system digests seismic, infrasonic, and hydroacoustic data to help verify blasts. A potential new contract would "provide the platform for future system growth and enhancements," according to an industry solicitation issued on Wednesday. 

The system, housed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, was launched in 1999 to check international compliance with nuclear test ban treaties. 

The impetus for the proposed enlargement of the program could be nuclear threats from "Iran and North Korea, technological opportunity, an agency wanting to improve its capabilities, or all three," speculated Jeffrey Richelson, senior fellow with George Washington University's National Security Archive.

The goals outlined in last week's proposal suggest a desire for big data analysis features that can identify more subtle signs of nuclear activity. 

The focus of the effort is "to fine-tune the current system by optimization of software algorithms through scientific and engineering studies,” the solicitation states. The upgrades are aimed at improving "data acquisition, detection, association, location, magnitude/yield estimation, event identification, event reporting, data distribution, and data archiving capabilities to meet current and future treaty monitoring needs."

Past nuclear surveillance reports generated by the Florida Air Force center have triggered both false alarms and valid alerts. 

In 1997, the Clinton administration drew criticism for leaking to the press what turned out to be erroneous assessments indicating a Russian nuclear test. Shortly after the gaffe, Columbia University seismologist Lynn R. Sykes, who served on the Air Force center's advisory panel in the 1970s, urged more careful scrutiny before accusations are prematurely shared with the media. "A few key people within the government were responsible for leaking misleading and outdated information to the press about the event," Sykes wrote in a review of the episode. Further analysis determined that the Aug. 16, 1997, event was an earthquake and not a clandestine nuclear explosion. 

In October 2006, the center detected an event thought to be associated with a purported North Korean nuclear test, and later confirmed that the incident, in fact, was nuclear in nature, according to Air Force officials. The current system is designed to speed Top Secret assessments to the relevant national security agencies once a foreign nuclear test is pinpointed.

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