NNSS biologist team one of three Presidential Award finalists

Owls studied at NNSS

Council for the Conservation of Migratory Birds presents national federal stewardship award annually

A submission by NNSS Biologists Derek Hall and Jeanette Perry—titled “Burrowing Owl and Winter Raptor Monitoring on the Nevada National Security Site”—has been named one of just three finalists for the Council for the Conservation of Migratory Birds’ Presidential Awards.

“I was aware of these awards and thought, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’” said Hall, who’s “studied everything from mosquitos to mountain lions” since joining the NNSS in 1994.

As the NNSS moves forward on vitally important mission work in the areas of stockpile stewardship and nuclear nonproliferation, among others, it’s the NNSS’ biologists who—with an eye toward environmental impact—help lay the groundwork. Before any new project begins at the Site, NNSS biologists do a survey to determine what could be impacted and how to mitigate the loss of important plant and wildlife resources.

“We’ve been doing some great work for many years,” Hall said. “It’s nice to receive some national recognition for our findings.”

Recognizing federal stewardship and migratory bird conservation projects from throughout the United States, the awards will take place virtually, during the next annual council meeting in 2021. Each nominee will present their project at the meeting, and a winner will be selected by the Council—made up of several federal agencies—and announced then and there.

The NNSS’ submission includes two studies: burrowing owls and winter raptors.

Each owl in the study was equipped with a satellite-trackable transmitter, powered by a tiny solar panel.
Each owl in the study was equipped with a satellite-trackable transmitter, powered by a tiny solar panel.


This portion of the NNSS’ submission builds upon research that began on the NNSS as early as 1995. At that time, burrowing owls were listed as a candidate species for the Endangered Species Act. Essentially, their populations were declining in many parts of their range, but not enough information was available to explain why.

While burrowing owls were known to occur at the Site, little information was known about their status or ecology, so the NNSS—proactive on learning about species not yet listed—decided to find out more. Hall launched an exhaustive study, visiting known burrows and searching for new ones. The team installed motion-activated cameras and temperature probes at burrow sites and studied regurgitated pellets to learn more about what they were eating. The resulting published report detailed the owls’ food habits, burrow use, reproduction and activity patterns—all information that allows the NNSS to identify the disturbance impact of proposed work.

In 2005, Dr. Courtney Conway of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) received a grant to study burrowing animals throughout Department of Defense and Department of Energy lands. He was particularly interested in looking at migratory linkages—how burrowing animals are linked throughout North America. Suitably, Hall partnered with him. This study continued through 2008.

Owls at NNSS
Burrowing owls

In 2018, Conway shared with Hall a new industry technology he’d begun working with: tracking owls with satellites. Intrigued, Hall brought the technology to the NNSS.

Wanting to know where the Site’s burrowing owls wintered, in June 2019 Hall equipped seven owls with satellite-trackable transmitter, each powered by a tiny solar panel.

“When putting on a transmitter, you have to be careful. You don’t want to impact the bird’s ability to fly and hunt,” Hall said, adding that trackers can weigh no more than 5 percent of a bird’s body weight.

With that in mind, the transmitters used in Hall’s study weigh in at just 5 grams.

Of the seven owls, three wintered in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and three in Southern California. The seventh owl is thought to have wintered on-site.

The birds who traveled elsewhere all made it to their destination within two to three weeks, and the satellite transmitters allowed Hall to document their migration routes. Of the six who left, one male returned to the Site, within a mile of his home the previous summer. He mated with a different female than last year, and they had five chicks. One of the other six continues to call Nevada home as well and is currently residing just northeast of Tonopah.

Two of the seven transmitters are still functioning, and Hall hopes to purchase another six to repeat the study—again on burrowing owls—this June.

Golden eagle
Golden eagle


This study lays the foundation for learning about climate change through studying bird migratory habits. Biologists currently hypothesize that as the earth continues to warm, an increasing number of southern birds will be seen in northern areas to which they never previously would have migrated.

The NNSS partnered with the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) starting in 2014 to build upon work NDOW had already been doing throughout the state since 1994—originally begun with the intent to study declining raptor populations.

“Nevada is a great place for raptors to winter,” Hall said. “It’s warmer, there’s little snow cover, and there’s plenty for them to eat.”

The NNSS’ collaboration on NDOW’s work provides them with data on land that’s otherwise inaccessible. Over a seven-year period, the NNSS’ biologists studied the Site’s winter raptor community to determine which raptors visit on a consistent basis. (Answer: there are six—golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, northern harriers, American kestrels, and burrowing owls.)

Red-tailed hawk
Red-tailed hawk

The golden eagle, which is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, is also of great interest to many federal and state agencies. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sponsors winter counts of bald eagles and golden eagles throughout the United States, so the NNSS’ data feeds into that effort as well.

The interagency collaboration has yielded good data and established two new survey routes in an area with little known data due its inaccessibility to the public. The NNSS plans to continue this area of study for the foreseeable future.

NNSS firefighter recognized by Clark County Commissioners for search and rescue work after Oregon fires

Michael Porter (right) is recognized during a Clark County Commission meeting.
NNSS Firefighter Michael Porter (right) is recognized during the Commission meeting.

The Nevada National Security Site’s national security mission often attracts employees who are driven to serve their country—not just on the clock, but off as well.

One such employee is NNSS Firefighter Michael Porter, who led a Nevada search and rescue team deployed to Oregon Sept. 12-21. A firefighter for 26 years, Porter served as search team manager of the Nevada Task Force 1 (NVTF-1) team, which was honored with a proclamation last week during a Clark County Commission meeting.

“I offer my sincere congratulations to Firefighter Porter and the Nevada Task Force-1 Team,” said NNSS Deputy Chief Jemmy Castro of the recognition. “This emergency is an example of the value that FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue teams provide to those in need during large-scale disasters.”

The September 2020 Oregon wildfires consisted of 45 active fires spanning more than 500,000 acres, destroying homes and forcing evacuation. At 11 p.m. PDT Friday, Sept. 11, NVTF-1 received orders from the FEMA National Response Coordination Center to deploy a Mission Ready Package-Canine Search Human Remains Detection (MRP-CSHRD) to support ESF No. 9 (search and rescue) activities in response to the Oregon wildfires.

NVTF-1 departed Las Vegas at 6:15 a.m. PDT Sept. 12 for travel to Oregon. The team—three human remains detection (HRD) canines and six personnel—traveled safely and arrived in Medford, Oregon, that same day.

Porter’s HRD dog, Dexter, enjoys the recognition during the Oct. 6 Clark County Commission meeting.
Porter’s HRD dog, Dexter, enjoys the recognition during the Oct. 6 Clark County Commission meeting.

The next morning, they met with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department to determine needs and search area. Upon the identification of the top priority areas, the NVTF-1 team worked in conjunction with the Utah Task Force (80 personnel) and four single-resource HRD canine teams from Florida (two), Colorado (one) and Arizona (one team with two personnel) for the remainder of the operation.

The group searched for the next seven operational periods, covering the area of the fire in the Oregon towns of Talent, Phoenix and Ashland, as identified by the Jackson County Sheriff's Department. In total, the team surveyed and marked 6,035 waypoints; conducted 4,301 structure evaluations; and searched 3,003 structures and 1,628 vehicles.

“It allows us to assist the country during times of need,” Porter said of his longtime involvement with the team. “We’re also able to maintain our skills, get national-level training, and interact with other responders in Nevada and throughout the United States.”

NVTF-1 is one of 28 teams in FEMA’s National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) emergency response system. Each National Incident Management System (NIMS) Type 1 US&R task force comprises 80 members specializing in search, rescue, medicine, hazardous materials, logistics and planning, including technical specialists such as physicians, structural engineers and canine search teams.

Porter and Dexter work in Oregon after the September 2020 fires. Porter has been part of the NVTF-1 for 14 years and a canine handler for seven.
Porter and Dexter work in Oregon after the September 2020 fires. Porter has been part of the NVTF-1 for 14 years and a canine handler for seven.
Photo courtesy of NVTF-1.

On Saturday, Sept. 19, NVTF-1 received orders to demobilize. The ground team arrived at NVTF-1 headquarters at approximately 6 p.m. PDT Sept. 21.

“In times of crisis, we see truly selfless individuals emerge, ready to help however possible,” said NNSS Security & Emergency Services Director Anthony Mendez. “As the country watched these devastating events unfold across the Western United States, Mr. Porter and the rest of the Nevada Task Force 1 Team sprang into action. We are honored to call Michael a colleague and are proud to have such dedicated individuals on the NNSS team.”

Porter joined the NNSS Fire & Rescue team in May 2019 after retiring from the City of Henderson earlier that year. Firefighter Charles Stankosky—who joined the NNSS at the same time as Porter—is also a member of the Nevada Task Force team, although he was not deployed as part of the Oregon mission.

“I have been part of the NVTF-1 for 14 years and a canine handler for seven,” said Porter, who has two trained search dogs: HRD dog, Dexter, who deployed with Porter to Oregon, and also a live human scent search dog, Allie. “During my onboarding with NNSS F&R, I expressed my desire to continue with the team. This has been supported by my supervisors and the company (NNSS management and operating contractor Mission Support and Test Services).”

Indeed, NNSS F&R plans to continue to be supportive of Porter’s and Stankosky’s involvement in NVTF-1.

“We are proud to have two of our members be a part of the team,” Castro said, “and hope to increase those numbers in the near future.”

NNSS to present advancements in international radiation detection

A seaport Radiation Portal Monitor system.
A seaport Radiation Portal Monitor system.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)’s Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) will present advancements in radiological detection to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) virtually Oct. 19 to 30. The event, called the International Conference on the Management of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) in Industry, is the first conference dedicated to NORM organized by the IAEA.

NORM is naturally present everywhere in the form of radioactive materials, such as potassium, uranium, thorium and their decay products, which exist in the Earth’s crust. When NORM is extracted or concentrated through various industrial processes – for example, mining, water treatment and fertilizer manufacturing – it is referred to as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM). TENORM may create elevated radiation exposure to people and the environment. Some TENORM also has similar gamma energy spectral fingerprints to other nuclear material. This presents a unique challenge in the transportation industry to ensure that other nuclear materials are not masked as TENORM.

“It can be tricky that large amounts of this material can cause confusion or false alarms with respect to source detection and identification,” said Senior Principal Scientist Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, who works with the NNSS Nuclear Response Division’s Remote Sensing Laboratory at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and will present to the IAEA. “TENORM needs to be strictly monitored and controlled internationally with uniform standards. It’s critical that we distinguish this unique fingerprint in the gamma energy spectrum.”

As part of its nuclear nonproliferation and security missions, the NNSA has supported the development of a network of more than 4,000 Radiation Portal Monitors (RPMs) worldwide to monitor checkpoints at land-, sea- and airports and along railway systems to prevent and detect trafficking of radiological materials. In order to keep international borders safe, the NNSS and its National Laboratory partners are working to develop screening technologies to further detect nuclear and radiological material as well as isolate TENORM readings from illicit material and thereby avoid false alarms.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and NNSA have a response assistance network system in place if unknown materials are encountered, the detected gamma energy fingerprint is suspicious or other precautionary measures are needed. Once a nation requests assistance to the NNSA Emergency Operations Center, the DOE/NNSA triage international assistance system activates with on-call scientists made available to analyze the data and determine a course of action.

Scientists use multiple methods of gamma spectroscopy analysis to identify radioactive isotopes and account for anomalies that would trigger RPM alarms.

“Instead of looking at all the spectral channels, you divide the spectral channels into smaller regions of interests,” said Mukhopadhyay. “By doing that, you have reduced the dimensionality of the problem. You only look into gamma energy channels you are suspecting to find something. When you look into places where there is a threat, you make distinctions between the threat object and what is naturally occurring.”

Advancements in this technology will be shared with stakeholders during this month’s international conference, which will serve as an opportunity for the NNSS to share its role in working to address the challenges posed by TENORM for international security. The presentation is on behalf of the NNSA Office of Nuclear Incident Policy and Cooperation, which provides international support for radiological emergency preparedness and response worldwide with more than 80 partner nations.

“We get to elaborate on what the NNSS does for the international community in order to resolve some of these situations,” said Mukhopadhyay. “The NNSS works hard to train foreign countries on how to collect and provide gamma energy spectra along with other corroborating data to the DOE/NNSA triage system for unambiguous and timely resolution of the problem.”

EM Nevada discusses risk-informed decision making, culture of collaboration at 2020 RadWaste Summit

Wilborn introduces the panel topic.
Wilborn introduces the panel topic.

Federal, contractor, and regulator representatives involved with the activities of the DOE Environmental Management (EM) Nevada Program recently participated in a dynamic panel discussion at the 2020 RadWaste Summit, hosted by ExchangeMonitor Publications & Forums. At the event, held virtually for the first time, the representatives discussed how a shared commitment to cross-collaboration and risk-informed decision making has helped to safely accelerate closure, cut costs, and best protect people and the environment in Nevada.

Participants in the Nevada panel included Bill Wilborn, Deputy Program Manager, Operations, for EM Nevada; Christine Andres, Chief, Bureau of Federal Facilities for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection; and Dave Taylor, Program Manager for Navarro Research and Engineering, the Environmental Program Services contractor to EM Nevada.

The panel discussion centered on the Nevada partners’ shared embrace of risk-informed decision making, which prioritizes the protection of human health and the environment, while considering future land use, in the development of cleanup strategies. The panel also discussed their successful efforts to develop a culture of collaboration and consistent communication, which has helped to streamline the development, review, and approval processes surrounding cleanup and closure activities.

Andres discusses collaboration, respect, and trust.
Andres discusses collaboration, respect, and trust.

“The three of us have worked together for a number of years, spanning over a decade,” said Andres. “Through those years, we have always respected each other, and, through that respect, we’ve built a trust that we are all here to do our jobs – and that’s to protect Nevada and Nevadans.”

Working collaboratively to adopt new and innovative approaches, the entities have achieved closure at 100 percent of atmospheric nuclear testing sites covered by the Nevada Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, completing the milestone six years early, saving an estimated $66 million in federal funding. Additionally, the accelerated closure of groundwater areas impacted by underground nuclear testing at the NNSS is anticipated to result in $100 million in savings over initial baseline estimates, with the timeline expedited by an estimated three to six years.

The Nevada panel discussion was moderated by Jesse Sleezer, Strategic Communications Manager for Navarro Research and Engineering. To learn more about EM Nevada Program activities, please visit: https://www.nnss.gov/pages/programs/em/Environmental.html.

Nevada National Security Site honored as R&D 100 winner and finalist

The XRPBS splitting the x-ray beam to two detectors.
The XRPBS splitting the x-ray beam to two detectors.

The NNSS’ X-ray Polarizing Beam Splitter (XRPBS) was named a winner of the 2020 R&D 100 Awards. The Aerial Reconnoiter Using Unmanned Systems (ICARUS) was a finalist.

The award-winning innovation recognized, the XRPBS, has the ability to separate an x-ray beam in two in order to measure each polarized beam simultaneously, which will be used for diagnostics within the NNSA enterprise. Developed in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory and EcoPulse, it is the first x-ray polarizing beam splitter in existence.

“I see it as a diagnostic that will be involved with many different types of experiments and scientific research facilities,” said NNSS Distinguished Scientist Howard Bender. “There is a continual advancement of these high-synchrotron resources.”

ICARUS equips unmanned aircraft systems with a payload of radiation, chemical, optical, LIDAR, and photographic detectors. The technology, developed by the NNSS in partnership with Unmanned Systems, Inc., H3D, Inc., and Virginia Tech, can be viewed in this video.

“ICARUS is an intelligent unmanned aerial autonomous system,” said Bender. “It provides an unmanned capability to do some of the dull, dirty, dangerous, and sometimes deep work where you don’t want to send any type of human system – for example, a serious incident involving hazardous materials.”

A UAS flight at the NNSS.
A UAS flight at the NNSS.

Both ICARUS and XRPBS were developed through the Site-Directed Research and Development (SDRD) Program, the NNSS’ premier science and technology venue and primary source for discovery and innovation for national security missions.

The R&D 100 Awards is recognized among the most prestigious innovation awards programs in the science and technology fields. When considering submissions each year, the NNSS looks at unique innovative technologies that are commercially viable.

“We always look for a hook that we can communicate for what makes us say ‘wow,’” said SDRD Project Manager Leslie Esquibel.

The recognition serves as a way for the NNSS to raise awareness of its research and development initiatives.

“It’s recognition,” said Bender. “It’s prestige amongst our peers in terms of innovation capability to drive new solutions for technical challenges. It provides name recognition, publicizing our capabilities so other entities know who we are and what we do.”

The NNSS has won six R&D 100 awards for its 2018 Silicon Strip Cosmic Muon Detector, 2017 Geometrically Enhanced Photocathodes, 2013 KiloPower with LANL, 2012 Multiplexed Photonic Doppler Velocimeter, 2010 Movies of eXtreme Imaging Experiments (MOXIE) with LANL, and 2009 High-Resolution Holography Lens. The NNSS was also recognized as a finalist for its Falcon Plasma Focus in 2019 and Argus Fisheye Probe in 2015.

For more information about the NNSS’ SDRD Program, visit https://www.nnss.gov/pages/programs/SDRD.html.

Nevada National Security Site donates more than $200,000 to educational and social causes

Tech Trekker
The NNSS-sponsored Tech Trekker (pictured here with MSTS President Mark Martinez, second from right) will continue to supply STEM opportunities for Southern Nevada students with help from a $52,000 donation to the UNLV College of Engineering.

Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) management and operating contractor Mission Support and Test Services (MSTS) is proud to make a $202,000 donation across several community causes.

“During this unprecedented year, we’re grateful we’re able to provide much-needed support to local and national pillars of our community,” said MSTS President Mark Martinez. “As organizations continue to respond to the challenges brought forth in 2020, we’re pleased to be able to help.”


A total of $57,000 will support the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) College of Engineering. In partnership with the university, the NNSS is a sponsor of the Tech Trekker, a mobile science lab that brings STEM opportunities directly to students. The platform will be adapted to provide supplies to schools who have students attending class on premise. The NNSS also backs UNLV’s SISTEM, a program where high school students are introduced to STEM careers through hands-on activities and guest speakers, which is being adapted for remote presentations until students return to a normal on-campus setting. Two $2,500 scholarships will be committed to the College of Engineering for students whose research aligns with the NNSS’ areas of need.

An additional $22,000 will benefit the UNLV College of Sciences, with $7,000 allotted for fifth grade science camps at Title I schools. $5,000 will go toward the 2021 GeoSymposium, a forum for graduate and undergraduate students to present their research and receive feedback from industry professionals. Another $5,000 will be used to support students’ capstone physics and astronomy projects that parallel NNSS mission work. The chair of the chemistry department will be given $5,000 to further chemistry research initiatives that involve high school students and teachers.

$10,000 will be donated to Spread the Word Nevada, an organization that promotes literacy by providing approximately 60,000 books per month to Title I schools. As corporate sponsorships and school book drives have been impacted by COVID-19, the donation will ensure books reach the hands of children in need.

“We are beyond grateful for the support provided by the NNSS,” said Spread the Word Nevada Co-Founder and Executive Director Lisa Habighorst. “This gift helps to ensure that at-risk students have the tools to create a lifelong love of reading that will brighten their futures. Thousands of students and their families will benefit from this generous donation.”

As students continue distance learning, oftentimes with multiple family members working within a common area, the NNSS is providing $1,500 to the Clark County School District to cover the cost of ear bud headphones for approximately 500 students.

The NNSS is a Diamond partner to the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, which is the recipient of $25,000 for the continuation of educational and scientific programs regarding the Site’s legacy at the National Atomic Testing Museum.

The NNSS is a continued supporter of the DISCOVERY Children’s Museum. $25,000 will go toward sponsorship of STEM programming, which includes educational activities hosted at the facility’s NNSS science bench.

The Southern Nevada chapter of The MATHCOUNTS Foundation, which works to build middle school students’ problem-solving skills and positive attitudes about mathematics, will get $1,500 to support its competitions.

A favorite among Nevada high school students, the annual Nevada Science Bowl competition will have a new look and feel in 2021 as the competition goes virtual. The NNSS is supplying $20,000 to continue to make the competition possible for the hundreds of students who compete to be regional champions and advance to the Department of Energy National Science Bowl.

Also going virtual next year is the Nevada Future City Competition. The NNSS is a longstanding sponsor of the annual event, in which students design a city model that rises to the engineering challenges of the future. $5,000 will support students with the tools they need to compete.


volunteers at Three Square Food Bank
As volunteers of Three Square Food Bank (pictured here in February 2020), the NNSS is proud to make a $15,000 to the nonprofit organization.

The NNSS regularly volunteers with Three Square Food Bank, Southern Nevada’s largest hunger-relief organization. $15,000 will be used for food supply, as the organization expects a 59 percent increase in demand for food through the remainder of 2020 and into 2021 as a result of this year’s socio-economic impacts.

“The need for food in our community has been amplified,” said President and CEO of Three Square Food Bank Brian Burton. “More than 447,000 people, including over 171,000 children, don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Though we are facing a food-insecurity crisis unlike anything we have seen before, we are reassured by incredible partners like the Nevada National Security Site, whose generosity will provide 45,000 meals for families and individuals in need.”

The Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance will receive $5,000 as the NNSS continues its Stakeholder Investor membership to promote economic and community development throughout Southern Nevada.

Finally, in the wake of devastation caused by record wildfires and hurricanes during the last several weeks, the NNSS is proud to make a contribution of $15,000 to the American Red Cross as the organization continues its humanitarian response.

“We would like to extend our warmest thanks to the Nevada National Security Site for making a $15,000 contribution to the disaster relief activities carried out by the American Red Cross across the country,” said American Red Cross of Southern Nevada Executive Director Alan Diskin. “With so many concurrent emergencies happening right now, every dollar means comfort and care that we can give to people on some of the worst days of their lives.”

For more information about the NNSS’ year-round support to Nevada, see https://www.nnss.gov/docs/fact_sheets/DOENV_0491.pdf.