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Brookhaven Develops Science-Based Solutions
to National Homeland-Security Issues


At the nation’s ports, airports, and border crossings, security is increasingly focused on the possibility that terrorists may illegally transport radioactive material into the country, for use as part of a conventional nuclear weapon or a “radiological dispersal device,” which is more commonly called a dirty bomb. In response, state-of-the-art radiation detectors are being installed at key locations in an effort to intercept these materials before they can be used in an attack.

At RADTEC, radiation detectors sense the radioactive source carried within this panel truck.

In cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Energy is drawing upon Brookhaven’s expertise before field deployment of such radiation-detection equipment. “How we can help is by testing these instruments at RADTEC under controlled conditions that represent what is encountered in the field,” explains Czajkowski.

RADTEC, or Brookhaven’s Radiation Detector Testing and Evaluation Facility, is where off-the-shelf homeland-security technology developed by the government or industry can be assembled, operated, tested, and compared. Open for use by government and industrial technology developers, RADTEC defines the strengths and weaknesses of different types of detectors, and enables the comparison of detectors based on performance and ease of use. Analysis of RADTEC test results can be used to help develop the most comprehensive protection system using detectors in and around the New York metropolitan area.

In addition to collecting baseline data on various types of detectors, RADTEC staff is also offering training to city, state, and federal officials on operating and testing detectors, and interpreting test results. “After we complete testing,” say Czajkowski, “these detectors will be deployed during field trials at New York and New Jersey facilities, such as bridge and tunnel toll plazas, shipping yards, and airport freight hangars.”

To learn how the deadly Clostridium botulinum toxin binds to nerve cells, Subramanyam Swaminathan (right) and Subramaniam Eswaramoorthy deciphered the toxin’s structure using the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven, a necessary step before designing a vaccine that could be invaluable should botulinum be used as a biological weapon.


In addition to testing existing detectors, the Laboratory is also developing its own advanced sensors for detecting radiological, biological, and chemical materials. The most promising technologies under development at Brookhaven include:

  • Cadmium-zinc-telluride-based sensors: detect gamma rays emitted by radionuclides of interest to terrorists, including cesium and cobalt. Unlike high-purity germanium detectors, which are expensive and must be kept chilled to function effectively, these work at room temperature and are compact and lightweight.
  • Large-volume xenon-based detectors: are another type of room-temperature device used to detect and identify radioactive materials at transportation bottlenecks.
  • Highly sensitive thermal neutron cameras: can locate fissionable radioactive materials from a substantial distance.
  • One-of-a-kind chemical sensor: can, from a safe distance, locate and identify chemicals, such as those used in nerve gas, dispelled in the air or deposited on surfaces, using laser-scattering patterns to identify a substance’s distinct chemical signature. In March 2003, the technology was licensed to the UTEK Corporation for further development.
  • molecular fingerprinter: could be useful for the early detection of biological attacks.
  • Accelerator-based, cargo-scanning technology: can detect nitrogen, which is found in many explosive materials.

Brookhaven is also working with other New York and New Jersey agencies to determine what additional help is needed to prevent dangerous materials from entering the U.S. For instance, one solution involves deploying detectors as part of a sensor network to collect data from containers and ships, U.S. Customs and Coast Guard agents, dock-side cranes, truck and rail heads, and commercial trucks traveling Interstate 95.

A more ambitious Brookhaven program, called Urban Shield, would integrate data from hardened sensor networks that are deployed throughout a municipal area such as New York City and that provide on line data in real time. These sensor networks would employ a dense array of meteorological instrumentation, satellite products, and radiation detectors to identify and help track chemicals or radionuclides if accidentally or intentionally released, thereby providing real-time information that is crucial to emergency responders.

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