Skip to main content

You are here

NNSA Blog


Steve Highland, a Sandia National Laboratories security expert, is the only Certified Master Safe Technician in New Mexico.

NNSA’s primary missions include keeping dangerous materials out of the wrong hands while protecting and maintaining the nation’s nuclear deterrent. It’s no surprise, then, that NNSA’s labs and sites employ the best experts available in security.  At NNSA’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, those experts include Steve Highland – a longtime professional locksmith.

For more than 20 years, Highland has served as locksmith to the tens of thousands vaults, safes, doors, vehicles, desks, and cabinets on Sandia’s campus.  Now, he works full time as principal technologist at the lab’s Access Delay and Structural Assessment Department, helping develop ways to stop or delay adversaries from gaining access to critical resources. He often “red-teams” security systems, challenging the designs to help engineers identify vulnerabilities and improve effectiveness.

“It’s a challenge every day,” Highland said. “I never have boring days. A lot of guys come and consult with me. I love being involved in the design of physical security systems. That’s a wide realm and open to a lot of creativity. I love working with my team; they are some smart dudes.”

As a career pinnacle achievement, Highland recently earned his “Certified Master Safe Technician” credential, the PhD of safe and lock studies, awarded by the Safe and Vault Technicians Association. Highland is the only person in New Mexico to hold this certification.

As technologist and expert on physical security, Highland points out that while no system is actually impenetrable, delaying access long enough for a response team to foil an attempted breach is the goal and indicator of success for his team. It is through the contributions and knowledge of experts like Highland that NNSA’s nuclear security enterprise keeps U.S. assets safe from unauthorized access and ready to defend against adversaries.

Read more about Highland and his career in security on Sandia’s website and in a recent news article.

When Steve Highland first started working as an apprentice locksmith, he was “busted” by police for trying to “break in” to an empty house. After that incident, he carried around a card above, signed by his boss and notarized.

A large radiation detector scans containerized cargo entering a seaport.

The Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (NSDD) program is a key component of NNSA’s core mission to reduce nuclear threats.

The program, part of NNSA’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, provides partners tools and training to deter, detect, and investigate smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials. Its main responsibility is to work cooperatively with international partners to build their capacity to prevent the illicit movement of materials that might eventually reach the United States. NSDD develops joint plans with partners to prevent nuclear terrorism and provides tools to build sustainable nuclear and radiological detection capabilities internationally.

To date, NSDD has worked with more than 100 partner agencies in 65 countries, including border guards, customs services, law enforcement, intelligence, and other local partners.

The program provides technical advice, equipment, and training at strategic borders, airports, and seaports, as well as at internal locations that are equipped with radiation detection systems to strengthen their national security mission.

Because the possibility of smuggling increases in areas of instability and conflict, NSDD often faces security constraints and other challenges. Practical considerations and customized approaches drive the program’s efforts to work with partners in these regions. Recently, NSDD supported Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Iraq by providing flexible detection tools to help secure their territories, designed to meet the geographic, security, and other challenges of each location.

The threat posed by smuggled nuclear and radiological materials is global. NSDD’s close relationships with its partners allows for quick responses to emerging threats and provides insight into detection operations overseas. Those relationships also provide visibility on potential challenges where partners may need additional help.

NSDD furthers U.S. diplomatic goals and strengthens global security. Detecting and deterring nuclear and radiological materials as close as possible to the original source – and as far away from the United States as possible – increases the likelihood of successfully preventing nuclear terrorism.

Police using a handheld device to inspect a vehicle for radiation.

Putting the finishing touches on radiation portal monitors and cameras at an official border checkpoint.

From left, Madeline Burchard, Sandra Funk and Bill McAllister show off backpacks filled with school supplies that were donated by Sandia California employees.

For the third year in a row, Sandia National Laboratories California has exceeded expectations by collecting 65 backpacks filled with school supplies for children of local military families, topping last year’s record of 48 backpacks. The backpacks were delivered to U.S. Army Reserves Garrison Camp Parks, in Dublin, California, and Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.

Operation Backpack was founded as a way for the Sandia to thank military families for their sacrifice in service to the nation. The back-to-school season can be a stressful and costly time for any family, but can be especially trying for military families with a deployed family member or single-earner household.

By providing school supplies, the Operation Backpack planning committee hopes to alleviate the stress and let military families know that they are supported by the Sandia/California community.

Pages