There were no snakes on a plane leaving the Miami International Airport two weeks ago, thanks to technology developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Two decades ago engineers at the national lab in Richland were developing millimeter wave technology to produce a holographic image of the human body and any objects concealed under clothing. But it was not until after 9/11 terrorist attacks that the technology was commercialized and deployed around the world.
Now hundreds of the security scanners are being used, including at the Miami International Airport, where one caught the unexpected image of a man trying to slip through security Aug. 25 with seven exotic snakes and three tortoises in nylon bags concealed beneath his pants.
While snakes and tortoises may not pose a threat to aviation, the incident shows the value of the whole body scanner, which also can detect nonmetallic weapons and explosives, said the Transportation Security Administration.
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The scanner is only part of the work PNNL has done since 9/11 to keep the nation and world safe. Since the terrorist attacks, PNNL has received more than $4.5 billion from the federal government to support national and homeland security research.
Work to keep the nation secure at home and abroad was a significant part of the lab's focus before then, but now it's grown to about half the research conducted at the lab, said Tony Peurrung, who leads the lab's national security directorate.
"9/11 provided a whole new sense of urgency," said Mike Kluse, who headed the lab's national security directorate on 9/11 and now is the lab director.
Shortly after 9/11 the U.S. Customs Service approached PNNL about helping secure the nation's borders. The lab has since installed 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 work has moved on to screen cargo coming in through the nation's airports and seaports, and the success of the program has led to international screening.
PNNL is helping catch radioactive contraband before it reaches the United States by working with the National Nuclear Security Administration to install radiation detection equipment for cargo at major shipping ports around the world.
The lab also has been called upon to research detection of other unconventional threats, after 9/11 caught the nation by surprise and started the nation thinking about other ways it could be harmed, Peurrung said. As the possibility or evidence of new threats arise, the lab performs research to make sure technology can catch them, including chemical, biological and explosive threats, he said.
But the lab's technology that's most likely to touch the lives of those in the Tri-Cities is the millimeter wave system being used to scan passengers at 600 airports worldwide and other places that require tight security such as courthouses, railway stations and military installations.
The Pasco airport is expected to get a whole body scanning security system in the coming year, although its not clear whether it will be the system developed at PNNL or another type using backscatter X-ray that the Transportation Security Administration also uses.
Before 9/11, PNNL was relying on grants from the Federal Aviation Administration to refine the technology, but after the horrific events of that day commercial interest helped to quickly bring the technology to widespread use.
The lab is continuing to expand uses of the technology, now working on ways to detect people carrying threats at a distance, which could be useful in incidents such as standoffs with law enforcement.
Kluse expects national and homeland security projects to continue to be a large part of PNNL's work. Unfortunately, the risk of nuclear proliferation and terrorism are not going away, he said.