Keeping nuclear terrorists at bay

Bill Peterson, project coordinator with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, talks with agents of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission during training exercises held Tuesday, Sept. 14, at John Wayne Marina.


 Officials from several agencies, both state and federal, were in Sequim last week to participate in a training exercise with the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office's Puget Sound Maritime Small Vessel Preventive Radiological & Nuclear Detection (PRND) Pilot Project.
Through the pilot project, officials from an alphabet soup of agencies are working together to ensure radioactive materials aren't transported clandestinely into the U.S. through the Puget Sound.

Perhaps more importantly, those participating in the project are developing data and techniques that will be utilized in similar efforts across the U.S.

The program, supported by Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard, has as its first priority ensuring the materials necessary to build a nuclear weapon, or a radiation-based "dirty bomb," are located and seized before terrorists can wreak havoc with them.

The effort requires proper vigilance, which translates to regular training and the right equipment.

A little history

Three years have passed since the Department of Homeland Security contracted with agencies around Puget Sound and in San Diego, Calif., to create the pilot project. Armed with gamma ray and neutron detectors, project participants have since been recording background radiation levels of boats in John Wayne Marina and throughout Puget Sound. Researchers from Battelle's Sequim labs trolled inlets and harbors recording background radiation levels.

Once background levels of radiation were mapped, different law enforcement and government agencies with a presence on the water received equipment from Homeland Security that alerts responders when there are unusual levels of radiation in the area.

Mapping the sound

"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 - those greater than 300 gross tons - are required to give 96-hour notice for entry into U.S. waterways and are required to have an automatic identification system.

Smaller boats usually are 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.

Taking the Coast Guard's capabilities "down to the local level," is one of the goals of the project, said Thomas Sparks, Puget Sound PRND small vessel pilot Coast Guard liaison. By training the members of 23 different Puget Sound agencies and by providing them with the necessary equipment, members of these agencies can better find "the bad guys." Sparks was quick to note that not everyone in possession of a radiological source is a bad guy. In some cases it's simply an unlicensed possession - a souvenir, perhaps. Or someone may simply lack the proper documentation.

Training in Sequim

Members of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife were on hand at John Wayne Marina on Tuesday, Sept. 14, to participate in the ongoing training. Peterson said with the training and equipment they've received through the program, the agents can serve a secondary mission as they go about their wildlife duties by looking for sources of radiation.

They were joined in the training session by representatives of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Offices of Field Operations and Air and Marine Operations. The agents are equipped with small hand-held devices, and larger, permanently ship-mounted radiation monitors.

The agents were sent in search of small radiological sources brought to the marina by representatives of the Washington State Department of Health; Office of Radiation Protection; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; the Department of Energy's Radiological Assistance Program; and Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office Organization.

The three-year project is wrapping up this month, Sparks said.

For more information on the project, visit

The Department of Homeland Security is developing a small-vessel security strategy to address concerns these boats might be 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 among stakeholders to ensure cohesive coverage

Reach Mark Couhig at

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