October 31, 2022
Director's Column

PNNL Technology Can Be Deployed To Help Ports Detect Dirty Bombs, Radiation

Originally Published in the Tri-City Herald on October 31, 2022
Radiation Portal Monitor

This photo (not part of the story published in the Tri-City Herald) shows where researchers at PNNL design and test radiation portal monitors that can scan cargo to detect radiation and protect the nation's borders, leveraging the realistic field conditions at the Interdiction Technology and Integration Laboratory on PNNL's Richland campus.

(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

In October 2002, the first of our nation’s radiation portal monitors, or RPMs, was installed at an international mail facility in Buffalo, New York, as part of an effort to detect and prevent terrorist weapons from entering our country.

Twenty years later, the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory continues to partner with the Department of Homeland Security to support the RPM scanning mission and protect the nation’s borders.

PNNL’s Interdiction Technology and Integration Laboratory is designed so researchers can replicate field conditions at U.S. and foreign ports where nuclear materials potentially could be illegally transported across borders. (Video: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

PNNL’s ongoing role includes helping to maintain the RPM fleet—now numbering more than 1,300 active systems—as well as diagnosing and resolving systemic problems, supporting recovery from natural disasters, reconfiguring systems to meet the needs of ever-evolving port operations, and incorporating new technologies and capabilities to enhance effectiveness and efficiency.

Earlier this year, a newly engineered configuration of the monitoring system was deployed at Washington state’s Port of Longview.

Like its counterparts now installed at approximately 300 locations across the nation, this system can detect radiation that could be indicative of nuclear devices, dirty bombs, and special nuclear materials.

This temporary system also offers cost and time savings because it requires less site prep and is easier to deliver and set up at locations where there are currently no RPMs.

It can be shipped in a single container or loaded onto a flatbed truck along with everything a Customs officer would need to staff the system.

As part of PNNL’s ongoing support to the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, our experts in threat detection helped to design and develop this easier-to-install temporary model to help ease supply chain challenges until more permanent systems can be installed.

Leveraging capabilities in nuclear physics, radiological engineering, and statistics, PNNL began working with DHS following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and installed RPMs at more than 200 ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2002.

Within 10 years, all cargo entering the United States, whether by highway or by sea, was being scanned by the more than 850 RPMs installed along the United States’ northern and southern borders.

PNNL has deployed a total of more than 2,000 RPMs at U.S. borders and at pre-clearance locations at international airports.

Before any new system components are approved for deployment, scientists and engineers at PNNL test and evaluate them at specialized facilities on our Richland campus.

In addition to validating system performance, our experts coordinate design, delivery and installation of RPMs and perform system calibration.

They also have trained thousands of officers who operate the RPMs to determine whether the radiation detected is a potential threat or from natural sources or legitimate material for medical or industrial applications.

Another example of PNNL’s contributions to the RPM scanning mission is a new remote operations capability that enables RPM systems at multiple terminals to be operated from a central command center.

Thanks to this development, the number of officers needed for radiological and nuclear scanning at the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach—our nation’s largest seaport with 11 terminals and 79 RPM lanes—can be reduced from more than 60 to just six, allowing staff to be redirected to other mission-critical activities at the port.

PNNL also supports the integration, testing and deployment of mobile units that can be set up temporarily for special events or in crowded seaports.

For the last five years, researchers have provided key pieces of equipment and reviewed technical information to enable technology enhancement and replacement. In collaboration with other national laboratories, they are developing an open system architecture that makes it possible for the government to use a plug-and-play approach for future RPM systems, purchasing modular components from any vendor that meets specifications.

For two decades, PNNL has partnered with our sponsors to provide leadership and deliver technologies, such as RPMs, that improve the security of our nation’s ports and border crossings.

We will build on this legacy, applying a range of science and technology expertise to this program and developing science-based solutions to keep America safe.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. To read previous Director's Columns, please visit our Director's Column Archive.