Every car and truck that enters the U.S. through a customs station along the Canadian or Mexican borders now is screened for radioactive contraband thanks to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Every car and truck that enters the U.S. through a customs station along the Canadian or Mexican borders now is screened for radioactive contraband thanks to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The Department of Energy national lab in Richland has completed installing 850 radiation portal monitoring systems along the northern and southern borders. The last one was installed in Trout River, N.Y.

Cars and trucks drive at 5 mph or slower into the United States past a monitor that can detect neutron or gamma radiation in small amounts. The instruments have to be very sensitive to detect isotopes of concern, such as plutonium or uranium, and that means other radioactive materials also are detected.

Any vehicle that gets a suspicious reading can then be stopped to determine whether it’s carrying permissible material such as fertilizer, which naturally contains radiation-emitting potassium, or contraband that might be used in a dirty bomb or other weapon.

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“We all get a deep satisfaction that we are making a difference for the nation,” said Daniel Stephens, manager of the project for the lab. About 400 people work on the project at the Richland lab.

The lab began working on the project in 2002 using commercially available detection technology. Each system took about 18 months of work, from identifying where it should be placed to training U.S. Customs agents to use it.

Before each portal is set up along the border, its configuration is tested and verified at a PNNL lab in the 300 Area of the Hanford nuclear reservation just north of Richland.

PNNL has a wealth of experience from its work supporting nuclear cleanup at Hanford that could be applied to the project, Stephens said. It has both a deep understanding of nuclear physics and knowledge of how to integrate the systems along the border for practical use, Stephens said.

The project now will turn to installing radiation detection systems at airports and seaports through 2014. The project is part of a $1 billion Department of Homeland Security program to protect the nation.

PNNL also has worked with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense to set up radiation portal monitoring systems around the world.

Information from: Tri-City Herald, http://www.tri-cityherald.com