On a brisk February afternoon, buckets of specially prepared Ice Melt and soil—each of which contains naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM)—are loaded into shipping containers in a remote area of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The shipping containers and their contents are used to test the performance of radiation portal monitors, which are large devices placed on either side of a traffic lane. Each monitor contains gamma and neutron detectors, and if these detectors register radioactive material inside a container, or any other type of vehicle, an alarm is triggered.
The Laboratory employees working here—loading shipping containers, adjusting monitor settings, analyzing data—support the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (NSDD). The office, which comprises teams across seven national laboratories and collaborates with more than 100 agencies around the world, aims to detect, disrupt, and investigate the smuggling of nuclear and other radioactive materials—such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium—that could be used in acts of terrorism or be harmful to people’s health.
“We think holistically about nuclear smuggling—we create tailored, layered defenses that incorporate technology, training, and enduring relationships,” explains office director Andrew Vogt. “The further we push out these capabilities, the closer we are to the sources of the threats. And as a result, we enhance not only the national security of the United States but also global nuclear security.”
The NSDD office oversees a vast portfolio of work, but on this particular day, the NSDD team at Los Alamos is concerned with a very specific slice of the office’s mission: testing, characterizing, and optimizing the performance of radiation portal monitors—which are commercially manufactured and then shipped to the Lab—so that the monitors are able to detect minimum quantities of material deemed to be a potential threat. This work is complicated because many naturally occurring substances can be radioactive.
“There are a lot of naturally occurring substances that give off radiation,” explains engineer Marc Paff, of the Lab’s International Threat Reduction group. “Kitty litter, a lot of construction materials, ceramics, even a bag of fertilizer, can be mildly radioactive. Obviously, one bag of fertilizer won’t set off an alarm. But an entire shipping container might.”
With many NORM loads crossing borders every day, interdicting dangerous radiological material is a little like finding a needle in a haystack. But the Los Alamos cadre of the NSDD program is uniquely equipped to help solve this problem because it has access to nuclear materials as a result of the Lab’s nuclear weapons work. To simulate a real-life smuggling scenario, team members fill shipping containers with naturally occurring radiological material and sometimes with nuclear material hidden at different locations inside.
As a container passes through a monitor, the monitor measures the level of radiation emitted from the conveyance. If a certain alarm threshold is exceeded, an alarm sounds. When deployed at borders, airports, or other locations of concern, radiation portal monitors can identify conveyances containing radiological material in real time. If the monitor alarms, authorities use handheld radiation detection devices to precisely locate and identify radioactive material in the conveyance.
NSDD then and now
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States became increasingly concerned about protecting the world from smuggled nuclear materials. Not wanting any of the Soviet’s estimated 30,000 nuclear weapons and more than 600 metric tons of weapons-grade nuclear material to end up in the wrong hands, the United States and its allies instituted a two-pronged approach. First, they encouraged partner countries—including Russia—to secure known nuclear sites through a program called Material Protection Control and Accounting, which implemented procedures to keep the material safe.
In 1998, the Second Line of Defense program (which became the NSDD program in 2015) was established and focused on the movement of that material across international borders. A vast network of radiation portal monitors was strategically placed at busy airports, large sea ports, and at border crossings so that, if smugglers got ahold of nuclear material, they would be caught when trying to exit former Soviet countries.
“At the time of its inception, the program was focused primarily on former Soviet Union countries,” explains Los Alamos NSDD program manager Nathan Limback, who notes that the program’s emphasis has grown over time to encompass additional routes for smuggling and a wider range of source material. “This program has been instrumental in assisting our partners in preventing the smuggling of nuclear material around the world,” he says.
Today, in addition to working closely with domestic partners such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense, NSDD has established partnerships with more than 100 agencies in some 80 countries on six continents. Many partners regularly share information with NSDD, demonstrating a global commitment to smuggling prevention.
“If a question about building capacity to counter nuclear smuggling ever arises, NSDD is the natural first choice to address it,” Vogt says. “We are fortunate to have so many partners abroad who are willing to work with us on these important efforts, and we strive to develop and sustain these partnerships for the long-term.”
NSDD offers an array of tools, including equipment, training, and other support, to provide flexibility and scalability to address the unique needs of law enforcement and security operations in each partner country. The community of participating agencies shares a steady flow of new ideas and operational needs, which in some cases have developed into internationally recognized standards and strategies for effective counter-smuggling efforts.
Much of this work is made possible by the seven national laboratories (Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, and Sandia) that support NSDD. These labs provide critical subject matter expertise, including data analysis, providing training, and evaluating, testing, deploying, maintaining, and troubleshooting systems.
“Los Alamos experts have been key since the beginning of the program—testing systems, calibrating systems, offering that weapons lab expertise that you just can’t substitute,” Vogt explains. “In addition to being incredible technically, they know our partners and know how to engage international audiences.”
On the ground
As part of the NSDD office, Jason Brock, of the Lab’s International Threat Reduction group, has spent the past 12 years traveling around the world to install, maintain, and train security forces on how to use radiation detection systems, which include radiation portal monitors.
“Some of the more interesting places I’ve traveled are Lebanon, Jordan, and Ukraine,” says Brock, who has visited 35 countries for his work in the NSDD program. “There was a time when I was traveling most of the year.”
Brock works with partner agencies in other countries to decide what types of detection equipment are needed, as well as how and where the equipment should be deployed, and whether portable, mobile, or fixed systems offer the best return on risk reduction. Making these decisions for fixed systems involves analyzing information to determine optimal deployment points—locations where geography and infrastructure naturally funnel people and vehicles through facilities or across borders. For portable and mobile applications, it involves finding the right organizations and officers to train and equip for the mission.
For fixed locations, radiation surveys are conducted to characterize background radiation levels at each location. “In some regions, the soil is naturally radioactive,” Brock says. “And because roadways, sidewalks, and various construction materials are made from the soil, they can be radioactive as well.”
In addition to providing radiation detection systems, NSDD trains partner agencies on how to operate and maintain the systems, placing emphasis on practical exercises and real-world scenarios. “We could have a person hide a radiological source in a backpack or car or truck,” Brock explains. “Then, we’d have them walk or drive through the radiation detection system. The security officers need to be able to notice the alarm and properly carry out procedures for locating and identifying the material. If the material is determined to be material out of regulatory control (MORC), it would be investigated further.”
Although every country has its own laws and judicial system, the International Atomic Energy Agency recommends common operating procedures to help countries deal with smuggled nuclear material. “Some countries have a strong legislative and regulatory framework in place with regard to the smuggling of nuclear material and MORC,” Brock says. “We work with partner countries to strengthen this framework when necessary.”
Brock manages NSDD projects in Vietnam and Cambodia. In addition to maintaining good relationships with government and other partner agency representatives in these countries, Brock conducts regular evaluations of operations, training, and maintenance for their radiation detection systems. When these evaluations show areas in need of improvement, Brock works with partner agencies to jointly develop and implement corrective action. “It’s important work,” he says. “I’m fortunate to be a part of this program.”
All radiation detection systems deployed by NSDD are commercially available systems purchased by the program directly or through its implementing contractors and national laboratories. After testing, systems are delivered to partner nations. Radiation detection systems deployed around the world help disrupt smuggling networks and deter would-be smugglers. Both factors are important given ongoing concerns about orphaned sources, which are radioactive materials that are no longer under proper regulatory control.
Legally purchased radioactive materials are often used in the healthcare, oil, and construction industries. For example, to sterilize blood, treat cancer, or study blood circulation, doctors use technetium-99, cesium-137, and isotopes of other radioactive elements. To check the strength of welds, construction companies sometimes use devices that contain iridium-192 or cobalt-60.
However, “through theft or improper disposal, sometimes this radioactive material finds its way out of regulatory control” and becomes a public health concern, explains Greg Orlicz of the Lab’s International Threat Reduction group. “Radioactive material likely from orphaned sources has been found in metal beams used to build structures and even in metal trays used to serve food.” If people have close contact with these sources over time, they can become sick or increase their risk of developing cancer.
Preventing orphaned sources from moving across borders and detecting those sources as early as possible in their movement have become priorities for NSDD. “Detecting nuclear and radioactive material is our primary mission,” Paff says. “Knowing that these portal monitors can prevent nuclear materials and orphaned sources from movement through a partner country is a big benefit. Radiation detection systems, including portal monitors, have really become a great tool in so many areas.”
The future of NSDD
Addressing the illicit smuggling of nuclear and radioactive material requires NSDD partners to balance security concerns with the need to facilitate legitimate commerce with minimal delays and additional costs. Because of these pressures, nuisance and false alarms from radiation detection systems are a major concern for officials at ports of entry. Given the need to balance ease of transport with security, NSDD places a strong emphasis on increasing the efficiency of radiation detection processes while maintaining the sensitivity of the systems to materials of concern.
“We have a dedicated science and engineering team that is always looking at ways to improve the execution of our mission and to support new mission areas,” Vogt explains. “If we can reduce the burden on front line operators and make the process more efficient, it is more likely that they will continue using those systems effectively in the long run.”
Limback agrees, stating “There are certainly a lot of challenges to overcome with this work. However, NSDD systems have proven to be effective in detecting, disrupting, and investigating the smuggling of radiological and nuclear materials. We have some amazing and enduring partners that are committed to this mission.”
This commitment involves improving and sustaining existing radiation detection systems and continually testing new technologies. Recently, all of the national laboratories that support NSDD have been working on the next generation of hand-held radiation detection equipment and evaluating them for programmatic use.
NSDD has also been testing spectroscopic portal monitor technology. Rather than only sounding an alarm if radioactive material is detected, these systems identify the specific radionuclide detected and, in some applications, provide a visual depiction of where material of interest is likely to be located.
In the coming years, NSDD seeks not only to sustain the existing partnerships and systems it has already built but also to field new systems and develop novel approaches based on today’s test campaigns. With a constant eye on reducing impact to commerce and minimizing operator burden, NSDD aims to disrupt and deter dangerous and illegal movements of radioactive material—without delaying commercial goods that could end up in stores near you. ★