Sequim Bay receives radiation checkup

Radiation is everywhere in Sequim Bay.

But only enough to be barely detected by some of the most accurate sensor equipment developed to date.

The Department of Homeland Security has contracted and partnered with agencies around Puget Sound and in San Diego, Calif., for a pilot project aimed at making waterways safer from possible terrorist attack with nuclear- or radiation-based weapons.

A team of scientists and logistics personnel from research arms of the federal government took gamma ray and neutron detectors from boat to boat in John Wayne Marina June 19 recording the background radiation levels. Simultaneously, researchers from Battelle’s Sequim labs trolled inlets and harbors recording background radiation levels from their boat Strait Science.

“This is preventative radiological and nuclear detection,” said Bill Peterson, project coordinator with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which is run by Battelle. “There are materials that emit radiation and different areas can have different background levels so to have a successful pilot project, we need to map those levels.”

The pilot project is aimed at smaller boats. Under the Maritime Security Act, large boats, or those greater than 300 gross tons, are required to make 96-hour notice for entry into U.S. waterways and are required to have an automatic identification system.

Smaller boats are generally unregulated. These can include fishing vessels, commercial vessels and recreational boats that have the ability to travel across the Strait of Juan de Fuca or across the ocean.

“We saw quite vividly with the U.S.S. Cole attack that violent extremists will not hesitate to use any means, large or small, in their efforts to inflict blows to our maritime assets,” said Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary.

“This strategy ensures all small vessel stakeholders across our ports and coastal waterways can play a role in unified threat mitigation efforts and replaces today’s seemingly honor-based neighborhood watch program with an efficient and successful means to combat terrorism along our waterways.”

The Puget Sound pilot project will serve as a basis for monitoring small watercraft around the nation. Once background levels of radiation are mapped, different law enforcement or government agencies with a presence on the water will receive equipment from Homeland Security that will alert responders when there are unusual levels of radiation in the area.

John Wayne Marina

The sun, itself a contributor to background radiation levels, shone on John Wayne Marina June 19 as Savannah River National Laboratory scientist Dave Dunn and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory logistics liaison Thomas Sparks carried a radiation sensor from boat to boat.

“We really haven’t found much, which of course is a good thing,” Sparks said. “We’ve done about 90 boats around the sound in the past two weeks and haven’t seen too many spikes, other than near the old smelter in Tacoma.”

Sparks said it isn’t unusual to find radiation coming from granite countertops, bananas or even in humans.

“One thing we think will happen is if someone has had a medical stress test, it will show on this monitor and could cause a response,” he said. “But that’s why we’ve coordinated with so many agencies, so that boat can be contacted by any variety of agencies who would find out there is no problem.”

Researchers with Battelle’s Sequim lab shadowed Dunn and Sparks in the Strait Science.

“We started in Blaine and made our way around the entire sound,” Battelle technologist Rhonda Karls said from behind the wheel of the boat. “(Homeland Security) provided the research equipment and we make sure it is operating and recording on these laptops.”

The timing of the project couldn’t be better, as it’s due to finish up before the 2010 Olympics, according to Sparks.

For more information on the project, visit

The Department of Homeland Security is developing a small vessel security strategy to address concerns about the possibility of small vessels being used for terrorist activity. Goals for the project include:

• Develop a partnership with the small boat community to enhance awareness

• Enhance maritime security with a coherent monitoring plan

• Leverage technology to detect suspicious levels of radiation along waterways

• Enhance cooperation between stakeholders to have cohesive coverage

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