DHS tests boat mounted radiation detectors

Its code name is "Crawdad," and it involves boats, computers and lots of technology.

Once it's perfected, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will have a new tool against terrorists: boat-mounted radiation detectors that are being tested in Savannah River Site's four-mile-long L-Lake.

The strategic objective is to minimize the risk that small boats could be used to smuggle radiological or nuclear materials into the United States, said Matthew Graviss, the project's testing program manager.

Using government and privately developed technology from many locations, the Homeland Security Department, working through Savannah River National Laboratory, opted to test the devices this summer on L-Lake because of its secure setting and the available of a variety of nuclear materials.

"We're doing a lot of repeat exercises to gauge consistency," Mr. Graviss said Wednesday during a tour of the test site and its portable buildings packed with computers.

Currently, radiation detectors are in use at ports, U.S. Customs offices and other locations, but they are mostly hand-held and backpack models.

The new boat-mounted devices will be used more widely by the Coast Guard, local and federal law enforcement and shipping terminals.

Although range and sensitivity will vary, the detectors under development will be useful in seeking out - and also defining - nuclear materials from afar, said Rudy Goetzman, Savannah River National Laboratory's program manager.

"It will be sensitive enough to not only see and detect radiation sources, but also detect particular components of the source - the exact isotope," he said.

He did not have cost figures for the project.

The tests include the use of pontoon boats with radiation detectors that scan "targets" - smaller boats containing varying amounts of nuclear materials. Data are beamed back to computer monitors via wireless towers, and everything is checked with global positioning systems to ensure performance consistency.

"In this setting, we can tell if what's supposed to happen is actually happening," Mr. Goetzman said.

Once the equipment is perfected, outside groups, including law enforcement professionals and others, will be brought in to field test the equipment again, Mr. Graviss said.

"That way, we get to understand not only the technical performance, but the users' perspectives as well," he said.

The testing program is being conducted by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, a division of Homeland Security.