A Senate committee has approved $20 million for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to help prevent radioactive contraband from entering the country.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., worked to increase proposed money for the work from $8 million proposed in the administration's budget. She is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the appropriations bill including the money passed the committee's homeland security subcommittee Thursday.
PNNL in Richland has completed installing 850 radiation portal monitoring systems along the nation's borders. Every car and truck that enters the U.S. through a customs station along the Canadian or Mexican borders now is screened for radioactive contraband thanks to the lab.
Now the lab's radiation monitoring program is turning to installing radiation detection systems at airports and seaports through 2014. The project is part of a $1 billion Department of Homeland Security program to protect the nation.
The majority of the technical work and planning for the nationwide Radiation Portal Monitoring Project is done by about 150 full-time employees at the Department of Energy's national laboratory in Richland.
"Since beginning the project seven years ago, extensive testing, installation and integration of radiation portal monitor systems has the nation closing in on its mission to scan all incoming international traffic and cargo for illicit radioactive materials," Mike Kluse, PNNL director, said in a statement. "In addition this work is driving advances in radiation science and technology, which is key to maintain our domestic and international security."
The project balances the goal of scanning all vehicles and cargo entering the nation by land, rail, sea and air ports for radioactive contraband while maintaining the legitimate movement of traffic and cargo.
The monitors detect neutron or gamma radiation in small amounts to be able to detect isotopes of concern, such as plutonium or uranium. Suspicious readings are checked to determine whether they are caused by permissible material, such as fertilizer, which naturally contains radiation-emitting potassium, or contraband that might be used in a dirty bomb or other weapon.
"This critical project maintains the unique balance of securing our ports while ensuring the free flow of commerce that our state depends on for economic growth," Murray said in a statement. "It also supports family-wage jobs in the Tri-Cities."