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Detecting the Nuclear Terrorist

ARA technology distinguishes between legitimate and potentially threatening sources of radioactivity

Part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's strategy in guarding against a terrorist attack involving smuggled nuclear devices and radiological materials is the ability to scan for radiation emanating from trucks and other vehicles. DHS has deployed hundreds of Radiation Portal Monitors, or RPMs, nationwide at seaports, northern and southern border ports of entry and crossings, international airports, etc. in an effort to screen incoming vehicles, goods and people for radiation. The problem is now how to reduce the number of false alarms caused by natural and/or legitimate sources of radiation and keep traffic (and trade) flowing.

The RPMs detect radiation from various types of nuclear devices, dirty bombs, special nuclear materials, natural sources and isotopes commonly used in medicine and industry. They also detect the radiation that normally occurs in, for example, ceramic tiles, fertilizer, coffee, bananas, or a person who has recently had a medical procedure using radioactive tracers. This results in false alarms that can cause expensive and time-consuming delays at security checkpoints.


ARA recently received a $2.8 million DHS contract to improve these monitoring systems and help eliminate security checkpoint delays. This rapid prototype and delivery effort involves adapting ARA's RadSentinel family of radiation sensors, which have achieved unprecedented sensitivity and low false-alarm rates, for installation in existing commercial RPMs made by Canberra Industries.

The RPMs will be modified to accept ARA's spectroscopic gamma-ray subsystem, which is precise enough to distinguish a radiation patient from a would-be bomber. Dr. Rollin Evans of the company's Southwest Division developed the system's algorithms, which enable extremely sensitive detection of sources with a low false-alarm rate and identifies these sources through analysis of the gamma spectra. This multi-detector NaI subsystem, along with the necessary computer and software, will replace the plastic scintillator in each RPM panel.

The supervisory subsystem for the portal monitor (developed by Joe Madrigal and Ed Kaltenbach) receives data from the detector computers and displays the information for operators to understand. The displays row of colored lights, immediately tells the operator whether a detection is a threat. If a vehicle is transporting a radioactive material that emits gamma rays, the graphical user interface (GUI) shows which detector panels sensed the gamma source and identifies the radioactive material (eg, Cs-137). Many other parameters are displayed, such as vehicle speed, the gamma-ray spectrum of a radiation event, and an electronic image of the offending vehicle.

The team: Randy Jones (Office of the Chairman and Program PI), Gary Smith (Shock Physics Division), Rick Chiffelle, Rollin Evans, Ed Kaltenbach and Joe Madrigal (SWD), and Fred Wikner (Office of the Chairman) are working with Canberra in development, manufacturing and testing. Prototypes are currently being designed and assembled with official testing to take place July - October at DHS test sites. Most of the work will be done at the company's offices in Albuquerque, as well as at test sites on nearby Kirtland Air Force Base and at the Nevada Test Site (NTS).

ARA delivers the first commercial spectroscopic portal monitor

An early version of this spectroscopic portal monitor was delivered to The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in April of this year. As part of a $2.7M contract from DHS/DNDO, ARA is delivering this radiation monitor prototype to the Nevada Test Site in early August for certification testing. ARA is a leading contractor for DNDO in developing extremely sensitive radiation detectors that can identify radioactive material in real time using gamma spectroscopy.

ARA provides innovative solutions to challenging problems in engineering and science. We consistently generate new ideas and approaches to meet the ever-changing challenges in engineering and the physical sciences.





ARA recently delivered and installed a portal monitor to NTS for official DHS testing. The performance of this prototype, as seen in the photo, will be evaluated during the next few months. The results of the evaluation will be used to select contractors for the production phase of the ASP program. A draft RFP appeared on 5 August that explains that thousands of these spectroscopic monitors will be purchased by the DHS over the next several years. ARA is clearly a top competitor for one of the awards, which could eventually be valued at over $100M.

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