Skip to Main Content U.S. Department of Energy
Breakthroughs Magazine

Science of Doing Business

Technology demonstration thwarts fictitious terrorist attack

The pace was intense as data flowed in from sources across the world—a spike in radiation from a ground-based indicator in Pakistan, an unexplained outbreak of plague in India, and a disturbing convergence of travel plans among suspected terrorists. Information Analysis Center analysts agreed the evidence indicated a well planned terrorist attack was imminent in downtown Seattle. Local law enforcement was quickly dispatched, capturing the suspected terrorists as they attempted to smuggle a chemical and radiation dispersing bomb into the city.

A handheld biotoxin detector, developed by PNNL researchers for the Air Force, was used in the scenario to rapidly identify a fictitious Seattle terrorist "hot spot." This technology is used to process samples of biological agents in a matter of minutes to determine if they are harmful.

If you think you've just read the next plot line from the hit television series 24, you'd be wrong. This scenario was all part of a "techno-drama" demonstrated by real scientists and engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, showing the power of information and technology integration during two live demonstrations in December at PNNL's downtown Seattle office.

The mock scenario known as Threat Alert 2005 covered six days but was compressed into a 75-minute, fast-paced drama played out in a fictitious Integrated Analysis Center following a series of seemingly unrelated events that evolved into a full terrorist threat. It provided a realistic platform for illustrating the application of detection and information analysis technologies that may be used to combat terrorism worldwide.

"These demonstrations brought together technologies in sensor measurement and information analysis, addressing the important challenge of early warning and prevention of acts of terrorism," said Doug Lemon, lead for PNNL's Homeland Security initiative. He added the dramatization is the culmination of three years of research and the next step in moving technology out of the research and development phase and into user implementation.

During the mock scenario, PNNL drew on technologies it has developed to identify, understand, and respond to a series of seemingly unrelated events underlying an incipient terrorist attack. The tools included information analysis and visualization technologies coupled with detection and forensic methods for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives threat materials.

"We received input from the Seattle first-responder community early on," comments Lemon on the success of the demonstration. "We tried to mimic reality as much as we could." It was good to use real staff, Lemon said, because they knew the technology was working. "We wanted a realistic drama, with the technology as the star."

A technology demonstration of this size and complexity was a pioneering event for PNNL. Fueled by the post-911 demand for counterterrorism technologies, Lemon and his team created a plan early on to integrate technology development with a goal to demonstrate the results. They aligned development with client and market needs, such as portable and quick detection of potential threats, and then set out to invent the tools with a goal to demonstrate the application.

The techno-drama played to a full house at the PNNL Seattle office. Audience members included representatives from the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, local emergency responders and the local media. Former Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary for Science and Technology Dr. Charles McQueary and key staff were among the guests. It was the beginning of a three-day visit McQueary took to Seattle during December to meet with PNNL staff and local area emergency responders.

Breakthroughs Magazine

In this issue...