Non-Human Assessment Technology (NAT) for Rad-Met Accident/Terrorist Incidents

Using technology to save lives and protect the health of first responders

By James David Ballard

Phone: 1.616.895.2934
Fax: 1.616.895.2915

James David Ballard, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Grand Valley State University, has written and lectured extensively on the potential for sabotage and terrorism with regard to shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to a proposed permanent repository or temporary interim storage facility in Nevada. The report, Nuclear Waste Transportation Security and Safety Issues: The Risk of Terrorism and Sabotage Against Repository Shipments, co-authored with Robert Halstead, contains important and timely research and findings about the emerging terrorist threat and the potential vulnerability of nuclear waste shipments. A solo authored report A Preliminary Study of Sabotage and Terrorism as Transportaion Risk Factors Associated With the Proposed Yucca Mountain High-Level Nuclear Waste Facility is available by mail from the State of Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office, Capitol Complex, Carson City, NV 87910

In the paper presented below, Ballard takes his work a step further and presents a thought-provoking analysis relative to the development of technological solutions for certain problems with the transportation of SNF and HLW to the proposed Yucca Mountain facility. In particular, his report focuses on the potential development and use of technology to help insure the health of first responders in the event of an accident or terrorist incident involving nuclear waste shipments.





The author of this technological white paper was recently invited to speak at the International Land Transportation Security Technology Conference held in Atlanta, Georgia on April 7 - 9, 1998. The conference sponsors, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), National Institute of Justice (NIJ), United States Department of Transportation (DOT) and United States Department of State, encouraged a presentation on the future use of technology to help protect the lives and health of first responders in the event of a chemical, biological or radiological emergency. While the main topic of consideration for the conference was the potential use of weapons for mass destruction on passenger transportation systems, this presentation focused on the fact that hazardous cargo shipments use the same infrastructure as passenger transportation systems and thus require the attention of counterterrorism planners considering potential attack scenarios.

As a result of this conference and ideas discussed during the three days of sessions, this paper was prepared and sent to a variety of International, Federal and State level agencies. The ideas represented herein are conceptual and meant to stimulate the rapid development of technologies that will assist police, fire and emergency responders in the event of an accident or terrorist incident involving radiological materials. The ideas could have a much wider applicability, but the reader should recognize the author's deliberate attempt to direct the attention of transportation planners and counterterrorism professionals to this underdeveloped area of study. The motivation for this directed presentation is to create momentum for the development of solutions necessary for the safe transportation of nuclear wastes.

The author wishes to thank the DOJ, NIJ, DOT and State Department for providing a forum whereby transportation planners and counterterrorism professionals could consider the links between cargo and passenger transportation systems. Additionally, the author wishes to thank Grand Valley State University, his colleagues in the School of Criminal Justice and a wonderful editor for all of their help in support of this project. In particular, Jonathan White, Kristine Mullendore, Bruce Bikle, Alene Sharff Cordas and Cindy Breen offered guidance, editorial advice and support. Lastly, the Agency for Nuclear Projects should be recognized and commended for its efforts to promote a dialog on issues important to the health and welfare of first responders.


What is NAT

Non-human Assessment Technology (NAT) is the conceptual and practical use of technology to replace direct human contact and/or to supplement existing human systems with technology applicable to hazardous situations. This report will discuss the following examples:

  • Robotics to assess radiological accidents

  • Electronic signing for hazardous cargo shipments

  • Interactive technologies to insure safety and security of critical cargo shipments

  • Stand-off assessment technologies that are able to detect and identify hazardous situations for first responders in the event of an accident or terrorist attack

  • Automatic radiological suppression systems for respirable particles that may be released in the event of an accident or terrorist incident

During this presentation certain acronyms will be used. In general and in order of appearance, these include the DOJ (Department of Justice), NIJ (National Institute of Justice), DOT (Department of Transportation), NAT (Non-human Assessment Technology) , Rad-Met (Radiological Material), Haz-Met (Hazardous Materials), MTU (Metric Tons Uranium), SNF (Spent Nuclear Fuel), HLW (High Level Waste), MPC (Multiple Purpose Containers) , GA 4/9 (General Atomics Shipment Casks), WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), NEST (Nuclear Emergency Security Team), MEMS (Microelectromechanical Systems, a.k.a. LIGA) WATS (Wide Area Tracking System), ATMS (Authenticated Tracking and Monitoring System), HIRIS (Hyperspectral Infrared Imaging System), Sandia (Sandia National Laboratories), ECN (Emergency Communication Network) NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), DOE (Department of Energy) and RPSS (respirable particle suppression systems).

Three specific acronyms listed above, NAT, Rad-Met and RPSS were created for this report and represent unique concepts or ideas generated by the author.



In the next 40 years the United States will undertake the enormous task of transporting over one hundred thousand metric tons uranium (MTU) of spent nuclear fuel (SNF), high level waste (HLW) and other radioactive materials in need of geologic disposal. Currently these shipments are designated for movement in shipment containers like the GA 4/ GA 9 casks and MPC's. These types of transportation casks are currently being licensed , planned for use, or in use.

The coordinating task surrounding the shipment across 41 states of tens of thousands of rail and truck cargoes consisting of SNF and HLW from 81 different sites to a central geologic repository, currently being considered for placement at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, will challenge transportation planners to use technology to reduce costs and insure the health of the general public, transportation workers, and first responders who may be called on to react to an emergency situation. The materials to be shipped are highly radioactive and represent a significant health hazard to these and other groups. In the event of an accident, or terrorist attack, these materials could pose as large a health hazard as any WMD attack using chemical or biological weapons.

One major area of collateral transportation concern is the health and safety of first responders in the event of an incident. Similar concerns about public safety and first responder health have been voiced as the result of the recent Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo. One reason for such concern is that transportation officials around the world are fearful that the unwritten rules of conduct have changed and that in the near future terrorists will attempt to inflict mass casualties by attacking a major transportation link. This report suggests that transportation security planners should consider radioactive cargoes a potential target for terrorists.

In particular, transportation planners should recognize the similarity between the forthcoming massive shipment effort involving SNF and HLW cargoes and the risk posed by WMD on transportation systems for human passengers. Such considerations should be factored into counterterrorist plans and training currently being formulated. Planners should formally recognize that the transportation corridors and infrastructure necessary for movement of both cargo and passengers are the same. The high profile of the SNF shipments, and potentially significant violent and non-violent protests or attacks against such shipments, challenge transportation planners and security administrators to design systems to protect the lives and health of emergency response personnel in the event of an accident or terrorist attack. The suggestions made in this report represent an initial consideration of how technological solutions could be developed or adapted to confront these particular risks.



Yes. The same ideas expressed in this document relative to radiological accidents and potential terrorist attacks on shipments of radiological materials may be applicable to chemical and biological attacks against human transportation systems. In particular, the use of assessment robotics to detect hazardous situations is one critical link between these areas. While the current state of detection development for chemical WMD attacks could readily be adapted to some of the suggested platforms mentioned herein, the relatively unsophisticated detection technology for biological WMD do not currently lend themselves to quick deployment using these ideas.

The key concept for counterterrorist and transportation planners to recognize is the interrelationship between the systems designed to thwart WMD impacts and the ability of these same (or similar) systems to help in the event of a Rad-Met incident. When this recognition is formalized, the critical links between the safety and security of cargoes and human transportation systems also should be formalized and factored into current counterterrorism planning.



The history of insect robotic development is rich and interesting. It may also contribute to development of effective Rad-Met assessment technology. Initial research on this subject was conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.(MIT). The pioneering work of MIT professor Rodney Brooks on the development of insect like robots helped create the platform whereby future developments would be successful. Additional developments in micromachining technology (i.e., MEMS or LIGA fabrication) allow for low cost mass production of insect robotics that could survive hazardous field conditions.

Recently, DARPA contracted with researchers at Vanderbilt University to develop battlefield robotics based on insect designs (Contract # DABT63-97-C-0052). These mechanisms, both crawling and flying, are designed for use as non-human surveillance points capable of assessing battlefield conditions without placing lives in danger. The challenge faced by researchers was how to construct these mechanisms at a feasible cost point whereby field commanders could deploy them in mass quantities during hostile actions. Current estimates price such mechanisms below $10.00 (US). Considering the cost, these devices could easily be adapted for NAT use and distributed in mass quantities to emergency response teams in preparation for a Rad-Met incident.

Additionally, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratories are developing complex biomorphic robots. These devices are much more sophisticated than those being developed at Vanderbilt. They may also offer a platform to attach assessment technology designed to detect radiological hazards. Considering the cost and complexity level, transportation planners should consider these biomorphic devices at such time in the future when maintenance considerations, complexity levels and deployment costs are lower.

The most significant difference between battlefield, or complex artificially intelligent robotics with advanced simulated or actual parallel processing capabilities, and Rad-Met assessment robotics suggested herein is the complexity level of the assessment robots. The complexity level for NAT robotics will be greatly reduced and in fact should be based on the 'point and let it run' principle. Designers and planners should remember that the most likely first deployment activators would be police officers, firefighters and/or emergency management personnel with limited technological expertise.

Clearly, first responders will need assessment technologies that are reliable, cost effective and easy to use. Technology developers and transportation planners should take these facts into consideration in the development of Rad-Met NAT systems and may find the use of existing technology like insect robotics helpful in quickly developing and deploying solutions relevant to first responder health protection.



NAT could also include various signaling devices designed to alert first responders to the potential of a Rad-Met incident. Research on similarly conceptualized devices (i.e., chirping casks) has been done at Sandia National Laboratories and possibly by other agencies interested in safeguarding hazardous cargoes as they move through the transportation infrastructure. Existing technology like the SmartShelf Electronic Tags® and ReflectoActive Seals® used by the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant may offer quick adaptation to this suggestion.

Currently, hazardous cargoes are identified by means of static visual signs indicating the contents of the shipment and by use of written manifests specifying the contents of the cargo. Such systems are decidedly low-tech and allow an observer of an incident scene the ability to identify the general contents of the shipment by recognizing the color and picture signal affixed to the outside of the shipment container.

Reconfiguring existing technology, a simple electronic signing assessment system could be developed and linked to the first responders' communication systems to insure some form of protection for their health. The first part of this system would be an electronic sign, or manifest, which broadcasts the identity of the contents as radioactive materials and alerts anyone coming upon an incident involving such shipments that a potentially dangerous scene exists. The second and interrelated system, would be some form of sensor in the emergency response vehicle that assesses this signal and alerts first responders to a potentially dangerous situation. Thus, the normal direct intervention procedures used to respond to emergency situations could be instantly modified to protect the health of first responders.

Linked together, these two systems will offer first responders the opportunity to safely assess an incident scene and will help protect human responders from health hazards posed by hazardous cargoes. If such a system was tied to the DOE's emergency communications network (ECN), a coordinated and relatively safe response to any incident involving radiological materials could be quickly deployed. Since potential development problems exist due to multiple communications platforms, a temporary alternative system is suggested during the discussion entitled "Stand Off Assessment Technologies."



Physical protection regulations for shipments of SNF and HLW are currently defined under 10 CFR 73 and administered by the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission). These regulations are seemingly under revision and while any analysis is currently problematic, the general drift of changes seems to be to reduce physical protection regulations for these shipments. Considering current research on the potential for terrorism attacks against shipments, the reduction of safety and security regulations is ill advised.

Regardless of what appears to be an economically motivated regulatory retrenchment, a considerable number of tracking and assessment technological platforms already exist. These include:

  • WATS® - this system is designed to detect radioactive shipments, track them, and coordinate a secure information transfer to security forces in the event of a radiological emergency.

  • HIRIS® and MTI® - both of these systems offer distance assessment technologies that may be used in the event of a radiological incident.

  • ATMS® - this system allows for the tracking and monitoring of nuclear materials using transponders, ground tracking stations and satellite links.

Given these already existing systems, and emerging threats from domestic terrorists, the author strongly suggests that current NRC regulations be updated. These new regulations should reflect the vital need to maintain contact with, security of, and safety for shipments in-transit. Technological integration of chase vehicle security, shipment monitoring technologies, and standoff assessment technologies is essential. The critical development problems facing such integration efforts include changing regulations to reflect current threat profiles, adaptability of systems for changing threat profiles, the development of cost-effective technological solutions to the problem of mobile security and redundant alarm/alert systems in case of a terrorist attack.



Technologies allowing for the assessment of accidents or incidents involving radioactive materials are currently in existence and/or in development by a wide variety of agencies and many of the National Laboratories. Additionally, as the previous section of this report demonstrates, a wide range of systems are in use, or planed for use, to offer transportation safety and security personnel the ability to track and assess the status of a wide range of radiological shipments. The following list of technologies is offered to help stimulate the transfer of similar ideas to the protection of SNF and HLW shipments. The main focus of this section is the identification of existing radiation detection technologies that could be used by first responders. For example:

  • Radiation Pager® - this miniature radiation detection unit is currently in use by United States Customs. Current estimates indicate the devices cost around $1200.00 (US).

  • Existing radiation detection equipment includes the Corona®, RADBOX® and RADCAM® systems. Each has unique detection and search capabilities that could be adapted to emergency response situations.

The most obvious and immediately usable technology listed above is the Radiation Pager®. These portable detection devices should immediately be distributed along all transportation corridors where SNF and HLW are to be moved. This suggestion is made with full recognition that it is not reasonable to expect that electronic signing technology will be developed prior to shipment commencement. However, the rapid deployment of such portable detection devices to emergency management personnel will allow them to remotely detect harmful radiation levels at a contaminated incident scene. The information that such devices can provide will allow first responders to decide whether they should enter such a scene and to assess the consequences of such decisions. Many of the other technology systems listed herein and in previous sections may offer similar benefits for first responders.



One of the most formidable problems facing transportation planners and security professionals attempting to provide protection from a Rad-Met incident is the health hazard posed by radioactive airborne particles. Transportation planners should recognize that these particles may be released during a terrorist attack or accident involving SNF and HLW and plan accordingly.

NEST teams face similar problems when they train to disable a suspected nuclear device. The potential for an atmospheric release of radioactive particles during disabling procedures is one concern for these teams. When training for such risky situations, NEST members use suppression foam capable of reducing airborne particles during the disarming process. Borrowing this technique from NEST protocols, the following ideas are suggested as reasonable health protection measures for SNF and HLW shipments.

Three different foam based suppression systems are listed below and grouped under the acronym RPSS (respirable particle suppression systems). The three separate systems are suggested because of the planning ambiguity that exists relative to exactly how shipments of nuclear waste will be conducted. These options represent illustrative scenarios and do not necessarily accurately represent actual shipment strategies currently being considered.

  • Containerized SNF and HLW shipments. It is possible to place smaller shipment casks in traditional steel shipment containers and thus avoid the security problems of an identifiable target. These enclosures also offer an opportunity for pressurized RPSS to be inserted into the container and automatically deployed in the event of an accident or terrorist attack. Thus, any breach of the external container would be quickly sealed by the suppression foam and greatly reduce the dispersion of radioactive materials into the environment.

  • Boxed, or otherwise disguised SNF and HLW cargoes, offer similar opportunities for RPSS placement and automatic deployment during an accident or breaches of security including explosive attacks. In fact, any container equipped with an automatic foam system could help contain potential dispersion of radioactive particles during an incident.

  • The most difficult placement and deployment scenario for RPSS is when the casks are of such width and/or height that external containers are impractical. Since a large percentage of nuclear waste shipments could fall into this category, it is important to develop rapid foam deployment technologies that could be useful in the event that a cask is breached and radioactive materials are released into the atmosphere. Placing the deployment nozzles directly under the cask in the truck or railcar bed is one suggestion. Adding a RPSS system to the impact limiters is another possible solution.

The above SNF and HLW transportation methodologies, and illustrations of how each could use RPSS technology to protect the health of first responders, are offered to promote the discussion and development of a quick and automatic non-human response in the event of an accident or terrorist attack. The idea is simply to conceptualize and suggests that it is easy to fill the area surrounding the cask with foam to discourage the dispersal of radioactive materials and thus prevent further contamination of the environment.

Return to the
Nuclear Waste Project Office
Home Page
State of Nevada
Nuclear Waste Project Office
Capitol Complex
Carson City, NV 89710
(702) 687-3744 voice
(702) 687-5277 fax e-mail