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From the May 2009
Advertise Issue Click to Go
Link/Bookmark By Douglas Page
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Imagine being able to
detect a radiation source no
larger than a grain of sand,
determine whether it's
lethal 137cesium or the
harmless potassium found
in a banana in an instant
while cruising past at street New Jersey outfitted a fleet of SUVs with ARAM
speed in a police Blazer. equipment to patrol its roadways.

Radiation detection devices called Adaptable Radiation Area Monitors, or


ARAM, developed at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
(LLNL), are mounted in the cargo areas in the back of SUVs called RadTrucks
to take counterterrorism to the streets.

The ARAM devices are automatic portal monitors built to detect illicit low-
energy gamma rays and neutron emissions characteristic of weapons-grade
plutonium and highly-enriched uranium. The units are capable of providing
accurate, positive warning and identification when suspicious materials come
within detection range. Or, in the case of the RadTrucks, when the units come
within range of the suspicious material. The New Jersey State Police has four
RadTrucks. California also has a fleet of about 20 of the $200,000 vehicles.
The Secret Service is also said to have one. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, radiation
portal monitors were used primarily to keep plutonium and uranium from
being smuggled out of nuclear facilities, or to prevent contaminated scrap
metal from entering industrial steel mills. The principle fear was that terrorists
could use the contraband nuclear material to assemble a dirty bomb — a
device designed to disperse radioactive contamination without the
thermonuclear blast.

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Instant terror

Even though a dirty bomb incident would be unlikely to cause many


deaths, its real purpose would be to create instant terror in the form of mass
panic, with lingering psychological damage. The aftermath would be as
unpleasant as it is unprecedented. If a dirty bomb device were to be
detonated in a crowded sports arena or holiday shopping mall,
decontamination and treatment of potentially thousands of panic-stricken
victims, as well as decontamination of affected areas, would be lengthy and
expensive. A dirty bomb set off in a metropolitan setting would also render
the contaminated area unsafe and unusable for weeks if not months, resulting
in further commercial doom.

Having a speedy, reliable way to detect radioactive material, particularly


while the source is in transit, has been the nuclear holy grail of homeland
security officials for years. Yet, few protections exist today that can be readily
installed into the stream of commerce to prevent dirty bombs and the
materials for larger nuclear weapons from entering or leaving the country.

When earlier types of radiation detectors are put on the street they tend to
alarm on harmless amounts of naturally occurring isotopes of potassium,
radium, thorium and uranium — elements commonly found in commercial
shipments and medical practices.

To avoid the nuisance alarms associated with real but non-threatening


medical and industrial radiation sources, instantaneous isotope detection and
identification is therefore mandatory for mobile applications. ARAM, licensed
to IST-Textron Systems, accomplishes this in near realtime in the RadTrucks.
Tests have demonstrated that detection passes are successful in less than 5
seconds at speeds of up to 50 mph.

ARAM provides detection and identification in one pass. "Previous


generations of detection systems needed a first pass to detect a radiation
source, followed by a second pass to identify the material," notes Dave
Trombino, one of the Lawrence Livermore physicists that developed ARAM.

ARAM not only makes nuclear counterterrorism mobile, it makes radiation


detection portable. "The 'A' in ARAM stands for Adaptable," Trombino says.
"This detection system can be used in fixed locations, in mobile SUVs, on
small boats or even in backpacks."

What's hot?

The New Jersey RadTruck project is part of the federally sponsored


"Securing the Cities Initiative," a program that focuses on increasing terrorism
readiness in the regions surrounding metropolitan New York City. The Defense
Nuclear Detection Office within the Department of Homeland Security is the
coordinating federal entity working to establish an enhanced level of
preparedness in the Northeast, including the states of New York, New Jersey
and Connecticut. The RadTrucks were provided to the New Jersey State Police
as a key component to the early detection strategy.

So far, the trucks have been used to cruise metropolitan streets near the
United Nations complex, around Flushing Meadows in New York City during
the U.S. Open tennis championship, at football games at Meadowlands
Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and at the presidential debate held at
Belmont College in Nashville, Tenn., last fall before the election. "The mobile
RadTrucks provide the ability to search for concealed radiation sources while
on the move," says Textron spokeswoman Sharon Corona. "Now, we can go
look for the threat instead of waiting for the threat to come to us."

ARAM technology is pretty good at going after the threat. ARAM is capable
of identifying 30 microcuries of 137cesium — about the size of a granule of

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The RadTruck stops here from Law Enforcement Technology at Officer.com

sea salt — from 10 feet away on the move. Textron says you'd need 500
times that amount of cesium to construct a dirty bomb, but if you had a dirty
bomb, ARAM could detect and identify it from as far away as 120 feet — wider
than an eight-lane highway.

Most radiation detection devices can be a challenge to master, but


according to Capt. Dennis McNulty, executive officer of NJSP's Emergency
Management Section, the RadTrucks can be operated by state troopers after
only about 10 hours of training.

Ready, aim, wired

ARAM's automatic isotope identification relies on proprietary spectroscopic


analysis software. Textron delivers the RadTrucks network-ready via wireless
connectivity for extended reach-back support.

The trucks come equipped with touchscreen graphic interfaces and text
message pagers. Modular system electronics and an integrated Pentium-based
processor are housed in weatherproof, electromagnetic and radio frequency
interference shielding enclosures that can be installed in any SUV platform.

Textron explains that ARAM uses a sodium iodide (NaI) device to detect
gamma rays and a helium-3 (He-3) unit to detect neutrons. Both operate on
the vehicle's 12-volt DC system. State-of-the-art signal processing allows
ARAM to acquire 1,024 channels of data 10 times per second, which in turn
allows higher probability of detection and provides the analytic software high-
quality data for identification. The vehicles can be configured to include
multiple detectors, as well as spectral data transmission and video capture.
Current RadTrucks come outfitted with one or two NaI gamma detectors and
up to four He-3 neutron detectors per vehicle.

Separate audio and visual alarms are provided for both gamma and
neutron emissions through a simple Windows-based user interface. Vehicle
emergency lights and sirens are also integrated into the RadTruck processor
interface.

"This type of system gives us a better chance of not only picking up a


radiation source, but also the type of radiation — whether it's a medical
isotope or a terrorist device," says Trombino.

The tactical advantage of the RadTrucks is that they can be rapidly


deployed based on changing intelligence. "Any border or port, any venue or
event that might be a terrorist target can now be screened with minimal
impact and interruption," he adds.

One significant operational advantage is it allows law enforcement to


monitor for nuclear materials while performing routine police functions.
Though the stated purpose of the RadTrucks is to provide a committed
presence in the vicinity of the metropolitan areas of New Jersey outside New
York City, the New Jersey State Police has assigned the vehicles to select
divisions within the agency that have preexisting roles and responsibilities in
homeland security, emergency response and transportation safety.

"Consequently, using thoughtful and deliberate deployment strategies,


these personnel have the opportunity to conduct both routine patrols and pro-
active radiation screening throughout the entire state, on a 24/7 basis," notes
McNulty.

With technology this advanced, law enforcement can do its job while
taking Homeland Security to a whole new level.

Douglas Page writes about science, technology and medicine from Pine
Mountain, Calif. He can be reached at douglaspage@earthlink.net.

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