Nuclear security to be tested at Richland swimming pool

George Prout Memorial Pool in Richland
George Prout Memorial Pool in Richland Tri-City Herald

The Richland public swimming pool will play a role in improving national security this week.

After a summer of children doing cannonballs into the pool and adults swimming laps, the Richland pool may look more like a scene from a James Bond movie this week.

It is being taken over by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory from Thursday through Sunday as the lab tests security for the nation’s irradiators. They are used to sterilize products ranging from medical syringes to food.

The tests will help evaluate potential vulnerabilities to terrorist thefts of the radioactive material used for sterilizing.

Experts from PNNL and Sandia National Laboratory, who perform security work around the world, will participate in the drills, with some of them playing the role of thieves attempting to steal radioactive material.

“There is no danger to the public,” said Trish Herron, spokeswoman for the city of Richland.

There is no danger to the public.

Trish Herron, city of Richland spokeswoman

No radioactive material will be used in the tests. But the project is being announced because city residents may notice tall scaffolding rising above privacy screens and barriers placed around the pool starting at noon Thursday.

Researchers at the Department of Energy national lab in Richland needed a deep pool of water to conduct tests for the National Nuclear Security Administration work, and the 12-foot swimming pool fit the bill.

“We had the facility and they had the need,” Herron said.

Irradiators use the gamma rays from radioactive material, usually cobalt 60, to kill microbes on products, said Keith Freier, director for global security programs at PNNL. The process, which is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can keep food from spoiling or otherwise protect consumers and medical patients from disease.

The radiation passes through the material, leaving no radioactive residue. It does not cause the treated products to become radioactive, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Irradiation leaves no radioactive residue on products, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But the cobalt 60 could be attractive to terrorists interested in creating a “dirty bomb” that would combine the cobalt 60 with conventional explosives to spread radioactive debris.

There have been no known attempts to steal radiation sources from the sterilization plans, and the federal government wants to keep it that way.

PNNL, along with Meier Architecture and Engineering, is working on secure designs for radioactive materials used in irradiators and then PNNL will work with the National Nuclear Security Administration to install the systems at facilities that will allow it. Most are privately owned.

The initial focus will be on irradiation facilities within the United States, but there also are similar systems worldwide that also could use the security systems, Freier said.

The sterilization facilities store the cobalt 60 under water, since the water shields their radiation. The radioactive material is in narrow, 18-inch long tubes called pencils because of their shape. They are arranged in racks.

As products are rolled on a conveyor belt through a containment area, the racks are raised from the water long enough to expose the products to radiation and then are lowered again.

The danger of exposure to the cobalt 60 without water to shield it provides some security against theft. The NRC reports that in 1974 an operator at an irradiator in Parsippany, N.J., walked into a room with an exposed radiation source, saw it and quickly left, but developed radiation sickness.

The Richland tests will help evaluate any remaining potential security flaws.

It’s really about … how long it might take a would-be thief to get to the source and remove it.

Aaron O’Malley, PNNL project manager

“It’s really about the mechanics and materials of the rack holding modules full of simulated pencils and how long it might take a would-be thief to get to the source and remove it,” said Aaron O’Malley, PNNL project manager.

PNNL staff and local contractors will put up decking and scaffolding over the pool and place equipment in the water to simulate a commercial irradiation facility for the tests. Contractors include Meier Architecture and Engineering, I-3 Global, Industrial Constructors and Vivid learning Systems.

The pool should be back to its usual winter condition on Monday.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews