Scientists scan boats for radiation

Published 16 June 2008

Scientists from several national labs collect radiation data in Puget Sound with help form nationwide program

The gamma ray detector started to tick upward as the boatload of radiation-detection experts floated by the innocent-looking recreational boats moored in one of the slips at the Washington State’s Shilshole Bay Marina. “That’s just background radiation from shore,” said Carolyn Siefert, a physicist based at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland. “Now if what we saw here was an increasing neutron count, that would definitely be something to investigate.” An unusual kind of radiation spike could indicate someone was smuggling radioactive material into Seattle. It could be the last, best chance to foil a terrorist plot of unimaginable consequences. Or it could just be bananas. “Bananas sometimes set off our detectors,” said Lt. Cmdr. Richard Hartley, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in Seattle. Agency personnel carry belt-clip radiation detectors when they board ships, Hartley explained, and bananas have a higher-than-normal amount of naturally occurring radioactive potassium. Confusing bombs with bananas is not a serious problem when it comes to maritime security, as it turns out, but spotting suspicious radioactive signals from a single boat in one of the nation’s biggest and busiest ports — which first requires ignoring all of the many kinds of natural and industrial sources of radiation out there — is no easy task. “Puget Sound is a problem area,” said Bill Peterson, a maritime security expert with the national lab. He also is the leader of a pilot project sponsored by DHS aimed at preventing the importation of nuclear terrorism. He said the problem is the big hole in port security that small boats create. “Small vessels can come and go in U.S. waters without having to adhere to most maritime security requirements,” Peterson said. He said a small vessel, by the federal definition of 300 gross tons, could be up to 200 feet long. “That includes a lot of boats,” Peterson said. Puget Sound is a massive and complex port near a large open border with Canada, he said, making it an attractive, opportunistic target for terrorists looking to smuggle either a nuclear weapon or material for a “dirty bomb” into a major U.S. metropolitan area.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Tom Paulson writes that last Friday, Peterson, Siefert, and other radiation experts from the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina were out cruising Elliott Bay to begin collecting “baseline” radioactive measurements as a first phase of the federal government’s new “Small Vessel Security Strategy.” Gamma and neutron radiation detection equipment were loaded along with a GPS tracking unit on to the Richland lab’s research vessel, dubbed “Strait Science,” all connected to laptop computers displaying the readings. Rock and concrete naturally emit gamma radiation so whenever the boat got closer to shore, the green dots representing gamma counts would climb skyward. The purpose of creating this baseline is the potential for false alarms from other sources such as boats with metal-concrete hulls or perhaps luxury yachts with large amounts of granite countertops, the scientists explained. Concrete and granite emit small amounts of gamma radiation. David Dunn, a radiation detection expert from Savannah River who was along for the cruise, said inspectors even discovered radioactive wood products on a ship about six months ago. Dunn said they determined the lumber had come from trees harvested near the burned out (and still radioactive) Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine. After cruising the marina, the radiation experts docked at Shilshole and asked a few boat owners if they would not mind letting them run some internal tests using portable gamma/neutron detectors. “My brother’s a physicist, and I’m trying to learn about all these things,” said Louise Hughes, who was positively excited to have the sailboat she and her husband have lived upon for twenty-seven years checked for radiation. Hughes peppered the scientists with questions as they collected data on her boat.

Peterson said the basic idea of the pilot project, which begins here but will be expanded nationwide, is to figure out how to best use these devices across many different state and federal agencies without having to create any new government program. Collaboration across agencies, and with the public, will be critical, he said. “We’ve turned the corner in the last year or so from a smorgasbord of projects to a much more focused and coordinated approach,” said Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, adjutant general for the Washington National Guard, who was not on the research cruise but worked to help launch the project. “We’re building toward a higher level of preparedness in part because of the 2010 Olympics,” Lowenberg said. “There’s no question we are a high-profile target.”