DHS awards $2.7 million for radiation-detection tech

What do bananas, cat litter, ceramic tile and some medical equipment have in common with uranium and plutonium? They all emit radiation.

For U.S. customs officials, they could also mean wasted time and resources as inspectors sift through tons of cargo to find potential nuclear threats.

Current radiation portal monitors are unable to distinguish, for example, between a dirty bomb emitting radiation and naturally occurring radiation from bananas. If bananas triggered an alarm, customs employees would have to spend time unpacking shipping containers at ports or unloading trucks at border crossings to identify the cause of the alarm.

Peter Kant, vice president of government affairs at Rapiscan Systems, which develops radiation portal monitors, said customs officials often turn off the monitors to avoid unnecessary alarms from naturally occurring radiation.

But the Homeland Security Department is testing several advanced monitors from six companies. The monitors can differentiate threatening and nonthreatening radiation, Kant said.

The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), which is part of DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate, recently awarded Rapiscan Systems $2.7 million to test the company’s Radiological Threat Identification System (RTIS). The system can discriminate between different radioactive isotopes.

Although he wasn’t allowed to divulge test results, Kant said RTIS was accurate enough to warrant a test at the Port of New York and New Jersey for a couple of months. He said he didn’t know how the other companies fared.

Using gamma-ray spectroscopic analysis of radioactive species, RTIS can be used alone or coupled with the company’s other imaged-based neutron, gamma and X-ray systems.

“It gives, in essence, two bites of the apple,” Kant said.

He said the device will not only let inspectors know whether there’s a radiological threat but also will identify the type of material that’s emitting the radiation and where it’s located in a container through imaging technology.

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