Improvements developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are allowing customs officers to spend less time screening cargo coming into the United States without compromising detection of radioactive materials that could be used by terrorists.
The more effective and efficient use of radiation detectors at U.S. ports of entry is saving $10 million a year and allowing 88 Customs and Border Protection officers to focus on other high-priority enforcement duties, according to the Department of Energy national lab in Richland.
It is satisfying to do something that really helps people who are protecting the country.
Sonya Bowyer, PNNL physicist
“It is satisfying to do something that really helps people who are protecting the country,” said PNNL physicist Sonya Bowyer.
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Officers have been able to work less overtime now that radiation monitors at the nation’s ports have far fewer “nuisance alarms” triggered by materials with naturally occurring radiation. The improvements have reduced the time spent investigating alarms by more than 57,000 hours a year, according to PNNL.
After the terrorist attacks of 9-11, PNNL began working with the Customs and Border Protection Office on better scanning for radioactive materials that could be smuggled into the country by terrorists at the nation’s ports of entry.
It continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security on the use of commercially available equipment for radiation portal monitors to detect radioactive materials being brought into the nation.
As the monitoring equipment was installed, standard settings were used, including on portable monitors and on monitors used at sea ports of entry and land border crossings.
“But we knew we could do a better job if we had the opportunity to look at the data for radiation portal monitors” that is generated as trucks, for example, drive slowly past monitors as they cross the nation’s borders, Bowyer said.
Improvements make radiation portal monitors smarter.
It would allow commercially available equipment to remain basically unchanged but to become smarter in what it detects.
A data analysis allowed PNNL, working with Customs and Border Protection, to come up with customized settings that are now being used at 26 sea ports of entry, 16 critical land border crossings and all mobile radiation portal monitors. They allow more efficient screening of more than 95 percent of the cargo entering the United States.
The radiation portal monitor alarms can be set off by benign radiological materials, such as shipments of building materials like granite and ceramics containing naturally occurring uranium or thorium. Each alarm must be carefully checked out, taking officer time that could be used on other protective work.
To improve each radiation portal monitor, PNNL scientists looked at data on background radiation, some of it linked to the types of construction material used at each port. Scientists also considered the configuration of each monitor, such as the space between the two sides of a portal that a truck would drive through.
230,000 fewer nuisance alarms a year
They also analyzed data on the types of commodities most likely to come through each port of entry, Bowyer said.
By customizing the settings starting in spring 2014, the number of nuisance alarms has dropped by more than 230,000 a year. The improvements are made during annual calibrations of the radiation protection monitors, which already was being done by PNNL.
The results have been “transformational,” said Todd Owen, assistant commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations, in a statement.
The customization of radiation portal monitors has had the added benefit of improving the flow of commerce through the ports. Commercial truck drivers are spending less time waiting for officers to check out nuisance alarms.