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What other methods or technology can be used or developed to assist in detecting radiation at the U.S. borders?

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Posted Date: 01/18/2016

This week's question comes from research by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) press release and reported in HDIAC Currents. The Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection works to keep radiological threats out of the United States using radiation portal monitors at ports of entry. PNNL developed a method to optimize radiation portal monitors, making them more effective at detecting threatening radioisotopes. 

Radiation portal monitors like these alarm less frequently on cargo materials such as tile or granite that may contain non-threatening, naturally occurring radioisotopes thanks to a new approach developed by PNNL, which emphasizes the use of selective energy-sensitive algorithms. (Image Courtesy:PNNL)


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Unfortunately, well shielded uranium is still a problem for these portal detectors. In order to prevent the smuggling of radioactive material into the United States, the sources of such materials must be better guarded. This is not a major problem in the U.S., however many of the former Soviet states have a poor track record with the nuclear black market and missing or stolen material. Other options are reducing the amounts of weapons grade radioactive materials and the exclusive use of low-enriched uranium. Low-enriched uranium can be used for energy, however it is not enriched enough for a bomb.

The key to for securing the nation against radiological threats is to improve chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) detection through research and strengthening partnerships with various business sectors (e.g. industry, academia, government, etc.) and security officials (e.g. federal, state, and local officials).

There have been many achievements in developing detection technologies; for example, the development of portable, wearable radiation detector devices to monitor and alert front-line personnel when radioactive material is present. Other examples of breakthrough detection technologies from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can be found here. Advancing detection techniques and technologies increase the detection, identification, control, and interdiction of radiological treats in multiple environments.

Strong partnerships allow for enhancement of detection with funding or development/research opportunities in industry, federal agencies, national laboratories, research institutions, universities/colleges, etc. These research and development projects pull combined resources for building a broad range of detection capabilities. Open communication with security official from all levels of enforcement to identify gaps in detection helps in the development of technologies, as well as planning and training for radiological threats.

smalone's picture

The Department of State, in the Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism (WMDT), has active programs in place that can best be described as the "away game," in other words, keeping the threat from reaching the U.S.  The WMDT "works with foreign partners to establish, strengthen, and maintain their capabilities to deter, detect, defeat, and respond to terrorist attempts to acquire or use chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear materials."  The missions include Countering Nuclear Smuggling (CNS), the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Smuggling (GICNT), and Foreign Consequence Management.  Within the CNS program, the State Department connects foreign counterparts with U.S. experts in nuclear security, border security, radiological detection, and other related fields to stop nuclear smuggling through detection.  As for the GICNT, which is co-chaired with the Russians, the objective is to "strengthen global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism by conducting multilateral activities that strengthen the plans, policies, procedures, and interoperability of partner nations."  Regarding FCM, the State Department coordinates U.S. Government efforts to assist partner nations with their efforts to respond to a CBRN event and mitigate the effects should an incident occur.

The Department of Energy, through the National Nuclear Security Administration, administers the Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence program (NSDD) [formerly known as the Second Line of Defense program].. This program can also be considered part of the "away game" as well.  The NNSA’s NSDD program works to strengthen the capabilities of partner countries to combat the illicit trafficking of special nuclear and other radiological materials at international border crossings, within the interiors of partner countries, across international borders, and through the global maritime shipping system.. NSDD provides partner countries with state of the art radiation detection equipment, communications systems and training that enable them to respond effectively to radiation alarms. The NSDD has equipped 500 sites in more than 50 countries with radiation detection equipment.