Graduate students experience real-world challenges of radiation at HAMMER training center

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJune 28, 2014 

Summer school for 13 graduate students in the past two weeks has meant learning about the real-world challenges of detecting radiation to keep the nation safe.

"We're going to get our hands dirty. But not contaminated," said Bob Runkle as the students started a recent day of hands-on activities at the HAMMER training center near Richland. Runkle, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory physicist, is the director of the summer school.

Most of the students are studying nuclear physics, nuclear engineering or radiochemistry and soon could be conducting the research that develops science and technology to better protect the nation against misuse of nuclear materials.

"One reason I'm in the program is to expose myself to different components of the nuclear security field," said Matthew Tweardy, a nuclear engineering student at the University of Tennessee.

As an engineer in the lab, he will focus on how equipment works. Getting context about how equipment is actually used in the field should be helpful, he said. He's also interested in expanding his work beyond the lab to inform policy, a realm where more technical expertise is needed, he said.

The summer school included lectures and field trips, but the emphasis was on demonstrations of technologies used for the nation's protection and discussions of the challenges faced in the field that are not normally considered in an academic setting.

That included getting some of the same training that PNNL instructors Melody Maynard and Brian Tucker give to border and customs agents around the world to help them learn to detect radioactive material before it can reach U.S. shores.

Tweardy and his classmates were equipped with the radiation pagers that customs officials wear on their belts and told to watch for readings higher than eight as they searched cars planted with suspicious material.

"If you have a nine, back away," Maynard said. But with the pagers they would be the safest people in an incident at which radioactive material was present.

"You have the pager. You know. The pager gives an idea what you are dealing with," she said.

Students went over the cars with handheld survey meters, with Tweardy getting a louder whistle as he ducked beneath the edge of a Jeep to hold the meter at the bottom of a rear door.

"It sings to you," he had said as he first tried using the meter.

Runkle played the part of an irate driver whose car had been detained: "Why are you taking so long? What's going on? I need to get to Moldavia."

But Tweardy patiently continued his inspection of the car. A handheld radioisotope identifier device, or RIID, told Tweardy there likely was radium 226 in the car.

There was -- from a bag of rocks collected by a rock hound.

Another student detected ice melt, which contains potassium 40, in the trunk of a Nissan. And a Lexus had thorium, a radioactive material that was present in this case in sand and old lantern mantles.

But the student who checked a black Camaro hit the jackpot -- cesium 137 in a packet tucked behind the visor.

It could be used to make a dirty bomb or to contaminate resources such as drinking water.

At other stations at HAMMER, students gained an understanding of the materials required to develop a nuclear weapons program, and they got an in-depth tutorial on how plutonium is produced.

The information followed a tour of Hanford earlier in the week.

They also learned how smugglers try to shield radiological materials to make it difficult to detect.

The station included samples of different types of uranium, including a historic uranium cube recovered after World War II in Germany.

It was designed to be used in a reactor being developed by the Nazis.

Runkle said he designed the summer school session around information he did not understand when he came to PNNL.

He also worked for the National Nuclear Security Administration for two years, learning what it takes to make science work in the field, he said.

"I wish I had known this two years ago when I started," said Chelsie Beck, an analytical chemistry student at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

Two years ago, she also started doing radiochemistry work at PNNL.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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