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Sandia's ‘SMART' radiation detection technology is helping thwart terrorists

Sandia’s ‘SMART’ radiation detection technology is helping thwart terrorists

Sandia truck

Homeland security experts generally agree that the threat of dirty bombs or other nuclear devices being smuggled into secure venues looms as one of the gravest concerns for those charged with keeping the nation safe from terrorists. Seaports, airports, border patrol stations, even government buildings are among locations that could be vulnerable.

Now, port officials on the East Coast — with a major assist from Sandia researchers — are capitalizing on new radiation detection technology that may serve one day as a model for other venues across the country.

Known as SMART — for Sensor for Measurement and Analysis of Radiation Transients — the technology uses sodium iodide detectors and special software to distinguish between normally occurring radioactive materials and those that might suggest ill intent.

Currently operational in test-bed mode at one major East Coast port, the technology enhances other detection capabilities in use at the facility and provides inspectors with a much greater level of sensitivity and accuracy, according to Sandia researcher Linda Groves (8114). Even better, SMART may perform just as well in different locales and scenarios where highly discriminatory radiation detection is necessary.

"It can be configured to fit your problem," she says, and in fact was deployed last year during a high-profile political event.

SMART’s proprietary software, developed by Sandia researcher Dean Mitchell (5935), is key to the technology’s success. The software helps operators easily and accurately identify the isotopes associated with radiological emissions. Most important, Dean and his group have worked to successfully integrate the software with the system’s detection equipment and data management scheme, a complex design that enables each component of the system to "talk" to one another and work as a cohesive unit.

The most visible part of the technology is the mobile SMART. One version is on a golf-cart-sized vehicle that performs analysis of suspect vehicles, while the other is mounted on a Jeep. Both are used in concert with hand-held radiation detectors. The mobile SMART, says Linda, is appealing to port officials because of its ease-of-operation, mobility, and accuracy. The vehicle, which is easily accessible and normally travels 1-2 mph during the inspection phase and at higher speeds when necessary, is mounted with equipment that can pinpoint whether the radiation is harmless or dangerous and in need of further scrutiny.

Sandia researcher Kevin Seager (5935) says SMART is deployed as both a primary and secondary detection method for port personnel.

Initially, it is used in conjunction with plastic inspection portals to ensure that the detection methods are reacting in concert with one another and that SMART "sees" the same alarms that the other portals see. Upon an initial alarm (signifying that radiation material has been "sensed" on an outgoing cargo truck), an operator can drive the SMART Cart around the inspection area to further inspect the truck. The SMART Cart enhances the sensing work being conducted with the hand-held detectors.

Sandia researchers, however, acknowledge that SMART technology is far from perfect. Sandia physicist Nathan Hilton (8233) and researchers at other national laboratories are discussing both "active" and "passive" detection to hash out the myriad effectiveness, safety, and cost issues associated with each approach.

"It’s a classic trade-off," Nathan says. "Some active detection methods use neutrons or gamma rays to search for shielded radioactive materials, but these interrogating sources are harmful to humans. Passive detection, on the other hand, does not run the same kind of risks, but it might not detect as wide a range of fissionable materials."

Sandia has programs in both active and passive detection (the method used for SMART), Nathan says the ongoing debate within the research community is "good for science" and will likely lead to firmer conclusions in the future.

The Sandia researchers say efforts are under way to commercialize components of the SMART system. A licensing agreement with Thermo Electron Corp., for instance, will make possible the manufacturing of radiation monitoring systems that use advanced radioisotope identification software — known as FitToDB and PASSBY — that Sandia developed. (The Thermo Electron agreement was one of 37 successes at all DOE laboratories highlighted in a 2004 annual report to Congress on technology transfer and partnering activities.)

Though the technology’s applications are largely limited to defense and homeland security, SMART can function in many ways for any number of potential customers. Getting the system integrated into an earlier point in the shipping line, for instance (rather than waiting until cargo is at the tail end of the inspection process), would be ideal for a shipping company or overseas port authority.

Gene Kallenbach (5935), a project manager in Sandia’s systems technologies department, says authorities at other venues are keenly interested in advanced, mobile detection units and are requesting SMART units for their areas.

Other venue authorities may eventually choose to integrate SMART technology with their existing detection technologies, though the program’s primary sponsor, the Department of Homeland Security, maintains responsibility for deciding when or if to "shop" the capability to other potential users.

Officials seem pleased with the state of the technology. Gen. Larry D. Welch, chairman of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Committee, rode in a SMART Cart last year and gave the technology a "thumbs up." Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., toured the Homeland Security Countermeasures Test Bed to view the new, state-of-the-art equipment, noting that "for too long, our ports were sieves."

With the installation of SMART and other detection technology, Schumer said, "we’re finally beginning to close the security gap."