Answering the call

The Laboratory’s Radiological Assistance Program helps keep the public safe from nuclear terrorism and other hazards

June 21, 2024

Rap Team
From left, John Ledet and Allan Crowder, from Sandia, and Jason Martinez, from Los Alamos, work with an ORTEC Detective—a high-purity germanium radioisotope identification device

On February 12, 2023, some 68,000 people gathered at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, to watch the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. Behind the scenes, more than 600 people organized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) worked to keep attendees safe from explosive, biological, chemical, cyber, radiological, and other hazards.

Among those 600 was a 7-person team from Los Alamos National Laboratory, which helped monitor State Farm Stadium and the surrounding area for radiological threats, including explosive devices. “We’re tasked with ensuring public safety—with seeing that the public isn’t unnecessarily exposed to any kind of radiological source,” says the Laboratory’s Kat Leyba, who heads the Los Alamos team involved with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Radiological Assistance Program (RAP). Monitoring large events such as the Super Bowl, in conjunction with DHS, is just one of the ways RAP protects the public. 

RAP has been around since the late 1950s. At that time, nuclear technologies—such as nuclear power plants and medical devices—were occupying an ever-larger place in American society. Foreseeing that this trend would continue, the Atomic Energy Commission (precursor to the DOE) created RAP to conduct radiation monitoring, decontamination assistance, and medical advice and analysis.

Today, RAP team members act as first responders to radiological, or potentially radiological, incidents. Over the years, RAP has responded to events that include the 1979 reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island; the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; and the March 2011 damage to three Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan, following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

RAP is divided into seven regions across the United States, and each RAP region comprises teams from DOE facilities. Los Alamos is a part of RAP Region 4, which is responsible for responding to radiological incidents in Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

That’s why the Los Alamos RAP team went to the Super Bowl in 2023. The members of the Los Alamos team, who are primarily scientists and health physicists, arrived in Phoenix two weeks before the game itself. In collaboration with RAP teams from Sandia National Laboratories (in Albuquerque, New Mexico), the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (in Carlsbad, New Mexico), and the Pantex Plant (in Amarillo, Texas), and with RAP Region 7 responders (who were there to train before hosting Super Bowl LVIII in 2024), the Los Alamos team surveyed both State Farm Stadium and the surrounding area. During the game itself, RAP personnel inside the stadium were ready to respond to any potential radiological incidents.

Rap Team2
RAP team members wore backpacks containing neutron and gamma detectors that allowed them to covertly scan for radiological sources during Super Bowl LVII.

RAP personnel can make their presence known or blend into crowds, depending on what’s needed at an event. At the Super Bowl, Los Alamos’ RAP team members used backpacks containing neutron and gamma detectors that allowed them to covertly scan for radiation sources. These backpacks, which provide feedback to users through earbuds, also transmitted data in real-time to other RAP team members, who helped monitor the tools’ feedback from afar.

The team also used detectors disguised to look like pagers. Had a radiological source been located, RAP team members could have used other detectors to help characterize the specific materials.

“One of the most important things about nuclear materials is that they’re talking to us—we just have to have the ears to listen,” says Jeff Golden, who manages the Lab’s Nuclear Emergency Support Team, of which RAP is a part. 

At events like the Super Bowl, RAP’s detectors frequently pick up on non-hazardous radiological sources. The most common false alarm comes from people who have recently had medical treatments, such as chemotherapy, that involve radioactive substances. Certain kinds of tools—such as nuclear density gauges, which are often used to measure the composition of asphalt—contain radioactive substances that can trigger detectors, too. RAP team members work closely with law enforcement officers, who are responsible for interacting with the public when detectors pick up on a radiation source.

Not all of RAP’s work involves large events like the Super Bowl (or Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, which the Los Alamos RAP team has also supported). In fact, much of the team’s work involves incidents that are closer to home. For example, RAP responded in February 2020 when construction workers unearthed World War II–era waste near downtown Los Alamos.

Through its efforts in Los Alamos and farther afield, RAP helps ensure that nuclear materials aren’t used for nefarious purposes and that events like the Super Bowl remain safe—even if some attendees, like those Eagles fans who traveled to Arizona to watch their team lose to the Chiefs, are bound to return home disappointed.

(This article first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of the Laboratory’s National Security Science Magazine)