Saturday, June 17, 2017

Monitoring the Country for Dirty Bombs

I recently received an interesting item from Raytheon about a monitoring system they're developing to aid in the search for dirty bombs and radioactive materials that might be in places it shouldn't be.   It's called RAIN for Radiation Awareness and Interdiction Network.
Together, Raytheon and research firm Physical Sciences Inc. have formed one of three industry teams that will demonstrate advanced technologies for a nationwide project called the Radiation Awareness and Interdiction Network, or RAIN. The vision is to develop a network of sensors, communications systems and analytical tools that will work together to detect, identify and attribute vehicle-borne threats before they reach a protected region or site.
It's not like there are no detectors now; the issue is improving them to reduce the number of false hits, while still finding real problem sources of radiation, and doing it faster.
The issue is normally occurring radioactive material, or NORM, a buzzword in detection circles. NORM shipments might be anything from radioactive isotopes in medical materials to a truckload of bananas, which naturally contain the radioactive isotope potassium-40. Or it could be any number of other, innocuous materials.

“One study found a third of nuisance alarms at some border crossings were caused by shipments of kitty litter,” said Dr. Erik Johnson, a Raytheon nuclear engineer and deputy program manager.
Fast forward to the present, and the government’s advanced technology demonstration program. In a two-mile strip of roadway at the Virginia Tech Smart Highway Facility, cars and trucks maneuver past checkpoints where researchers measure the performance of different RAIN concepts.
(the Virginia Tech test site - Raytheon photo)

The big advance in dealing with NORM was a software fix to implement a proprietary algorithm called Poisson Clutter Split, or PCS, which processes energy spectra and suppresses clutter — reducing noise levels in the radiation it reads. 

If there's a real breakthrough here, it's the speed with which traffic can be monitored.  Currently, trucks have to be slowly driven though a screening area; with this system, the goal is to monitor cars and trucks going at highway speed.  Raytheon decided to take advantage of existing infrastructure to house the monitors.
Second, the team addressed the economics of implementing the overall system. They installed the PERM radiation detectors as an upgrade to the Raytheon-built, all-electronic tolling systems now in use on roadways from Florida to Israel.

The detectors become part of the elevated, drive-through gantries that have replaced toll booths on major highways around the world. The same vehicle timing and identification data that's used for accurate tolling can help with threat detection, discrimination and vehicle attribution.
It's always easier to mount a new box to existing infrastructure than create new trusses all along the highways.  This turns the toll collection system into a multi-spectrum security scan.   Since the toll systems are already linked to other state infrastructure, typically Highway Patrol and the toll collection networks, the radiation detector signals would probably be able to use the same links - wired or wireless.  The obvious down side, though, is that the way someone with a dirty bomb gets around this is simply to stay off those roads.  First steps, I suppose.

Again, radiation detection is nothing particularly new and has been in place in shipping ports since at least the aftermath of 9/11.  I don't believe I've told this story here on the blog, but a few years ago I went through a period where work sent me to Toronto, Ontario several times to help a vendor and our company resolve some  production logjams.  On one return trip, I had lined up to go through customs for entry to the US. Since I had nothing to do other than look around, I was just standing there, when I suddenly found a security agent alongside me with something in his hand about the size of a small ham radio VHF or UHF transceiver - only it wasn't one.  I didn't get a good look, but it was a dark-colored box with some different colored LEDs on the front of it, and I think it had some sort of antenna-looking device on it.  I heard the agent say, "Over here" in a loud voice to no one in particular, and a group descended on a woman in the next line to my left and a couple of places in front of me.  If you were to look at her, you'd probably say "cancer patient" to yourself.  She produced some sort of letter, apparently explaining why she was radioactive, and after perhaps a minute, the agents went back to where they came from, with cheerful-sounding, "have a nice day" greetings all around. 

That impressed me.  Given the size of the room, they had to have been more than 50 feet from her, yet they quickly isolated her and came to investigate without impacting the rest of us waiting in line. 

A quick search for news of a contract for Raytheon and Physical Sciences for RAIN doesn't return a recognizable hit, so it looks like this is still research for a new system.  Aside from governments, there aren't likely to be customers for this. 

I'm waiting for the knock on the door from Federal Agents who think nobody could possibly have enough kitty litter to set off their detectors.  They haven't seen enough multi-cat households.


  1. Almost makes you want to drive a Ryder rental truck filled with kitty litter through Oklahoma City ;-)

  2. We need to sell kitty litter to Iran and North Korea with the promise of a shortcut... I can only hope that it's been tried.

  3. I was surprised at the kitty litter. I figure it must be something in the clay base and Oak Ridge says the kitty litter clay contains traces of uranium and thorium.

    Bananas are famous, and even have a unit of radiation named after them, the Banana Equivalent Dose.

    A grocery store delivery truck with bananas and kitty litter must light up every detector there is.

  4. Those radiation pagers were sensitive enough that I couldn't wear mine for three days or so after having a radioactive stress test.

    The real frightening part is when the pager goes off while you are in traffic on the way to work. False positive? Real positive? And I didn't see any trucks nearby. If I was still working I would test the kitty litter and banana theory.

    Next time I talk to my former coworkers, I will ask some questions.

  5. While I'm not a radiation expert, from what I do know about it, I feel like the 'dirty bomb' threat is over hyped - unless someone gets hold of a large amount of HIGHLY radioactive material AND a large amount of explosives AND gets them both in the right place in a populated area, they end up with , at most, the equivalent of what Aum Shinriku did with their sarin gas attack in Tokyo (and remember, it took them a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars, and a bunch of biochemists to do what they did).
    The radiation incidents that I have read about - Chernobyl, Mayak, Church Rock (the largest radiation release in the US, and one you probably haven't heard of), all required multiple tons of radioactive material to have the impact they did, and were the byproduct of institutional scale work; how much damage would a few pounds of, say, medical waste, do?
    Can somebody who knows the subject better comment on the actual hazard of a dirty bomb?

    1. I've heard basically the same thing. A dirty bomb is a bit overblown as a threat - except for the people right on top of it. It's just that most people have an irrational fear of anything involving the "R" word.

      Likewise, I'd welcome a real expert's input.

  6. I too am kind of skeptical of the real impact of a dirty bomb. However imagine a dirty bomb with a serious radioactive isotope going off in Times Square. Perhaps a thousand people would be immediately exposed and at risk. The entire area including a significant down wind area would be closed for a long cleanup that would likely require removing buildings and a foot to two or three of soil/concrete/paving to clean it up. Probably it would still retain radioactivity such that it would be unbuildable and unsafe for human traffic for a thousand years or so. While this is going on it would likely continue to spread with wind and traffic (foot/vehicle) and new hot spots would crop up with many of the same serious clean ups necessary.
    All of this depends solely on the isotope they managed to get to build the bomb. The worst would make New York city itself uninhabitable for a few thousand years. The least radioactive/dangerous would merely require $20-$50 billion or so in cleanup. So how bad would it be? Depends.