Every day along sunny beaches and frigid shorelines, the U.S. receives hundreds of thousands of cargo containers. Most are the size of a rail car and contain a surplus of products ranging from clothing to electronics. But, they could also carry contraband items like drugs, explosives, or illicit radiological materials.
Since 9/11, detecting smuggled radiological items has become a top homeland security priority. Traditionally, the detection process involves scanning every container as it is off-loaded on the dock. This process is time-consuming and inefficient, often yielding false positive alarms.
But detection research currently taking place at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has shown promising results for increasing the accuracy and detection distance of radiological materials. The research is proving that detection can take place before a cargo ship even comes close to the 95,000-mile U.S. maritime border.
INL engineers have developed and tested the Photonuclear Inspection and Threat Assessment System (PITAS). This nonintrusive technology employs a transportable high-energy linear electron accelerator to channel high-velocity atomic photons into a precise invisible beam that inspects the cargo containers. If nuclear materials are present, fission is induced, and gamma and neutron signatures are emitted.
Using a series of patented cylindrical detectors and a laptop computer, the signatures are analyzed for illicit characteristics. The PITAS process also allows detection of material that has been covertly shielded. To improve accuracy, PITAS has software that distinguishes between plutonium, uranium, or thorium as well as simple medical or household items.
- PITAS detects radiological material in less than 2 minutes at distances up to 200 meters.
- Operates remotely using a high-energy 25-30 MeV accelerator.
- Controls dose on target with a built-in collimator and accelerator operation.
- Leaves no lasting impact or residue signature.
- The system’s design leaves no lasting environmental effects and can be easily transported.