DHS aims to spur innovation in radiation detection
"That was considered sort of ho-hum," said Ferguson, a physicist and now a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "There wasn't really a strong motivation for talented young scientists to study these subjects."
Following Sept. 11, 2001, however, detecting radiation took on a new immediacy. Radiation detectors were no longer needed just to stop contaminated scrap metal from ruining industrial processing equipment or making sure nothing radioactive from inside a nuclear power plant ended up outside.
As the United States recovered from spectacular strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, concerns grew about what could be the most devastating terrorism scenario -- detonation of a stolen or improvised nuclear weapon. Radiation detection technology would likely play an integral role in catching a nuclear weapon or nuclear material before it could be used in such an attack.
The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office was created two years ago within the Homeland Security Department, which was itself formed in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Part of its mission, in addition to developing a web of radiation detection to safeguard the United States from a smuggled nuclear weapon, is pushing forward detection technology through "an aggressive … and transformational" program of research and development.
To a certain extent, however, the mental capital to develop that technology was lacking. People were not paying attention to this challenge, at least not in the way that the post-Sept. 11 world seemed to demand.
"People had been concerned at the national labs about monitoring special nuclear material, but it wasn't until terrorism reared its ugly head that people began to get concerned about the ultimate terrorist attack, which is a loose nuke," said David Wehe, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Michigan who studies radiation detection. "We need the intellectual horsepower to come along and solve these things," he said.
Detecting radioactive scrap metal is one thing but detecting the low activity nuclear material that could fuel fission weapons is something else altogether.
"That's a huge challenge," Wehe said, noting the materials do not produce much of a radioactive signature. "I don't know if you were ever on a nuclear submarine but people sleep next to these things. A nuclear-tipped torpedo could be on the bunk above you."
Since the devastating twin blows to nuclear power of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and later the end of a Cold War focus on nuclear one-upmanship, there has been a decline in both the number of nuclear engineering departments and nuclear engineering students in the United States, said William Hagan, assistant director of transformation research and development at the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
"That has led of course to fewer students going into the field, fewer students graduating and therefore fewer people available in general," he said during a recent interview.
Nearly six years later after Sept. 11, that gap is still outstanding.
"We didn't have the huge group of people we felt we needed right after Sept. 11 to really pay attention to these issues, so even six years after Sept. 11 we still have this lag," Ferguson said.
Now the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is doing what it can to address that lag, by providing $58 million over five years to academic institutions digging into the problems of radiation detection.
The Academic Research Initiative, designed with input from the academic community it is aimed to invigorate, is being run jointly by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the National Science Foundation. The recipients of the first grants have already been selected but not yet publicly identified.
In fiscal 2007, the first year of the program, Hagan's office plans to hand out roughly $8 million to fund research programs that would operate from three to five years. The largest research programs could take up to five years and receive up to $7.5 million over their spans.
The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is looking for universities to work on detecting shielded material, detecting material at greater distances, miniaturizing detectors as well as more effectively analyzing the data streaming back from the devices.
"We've got to deal with this sort of languishing of technology that has happened over the past couple of decades," Hagan said. "I think we're already starting to snap out of that."
While Hagan's office tries to spread its attention over the three constituencies that make up the research community -- the national laboratories, private industry and the universities -- the academic community offers particular opportunities for innovation, he said.
Universities can be the places where outlandish and unlikely solutions to problems can emerge, solutions that might not come to fruition in a more conservative, profit-minded industrial atmosphere or in the national laboratories.
The idea with the Academic Research Initiative "was we want this to be very unrestrictive," Hagan said. "We want this to be very innovative. We want this to be things that a company may not think of because it's too far out."
Hagan is hoping the program results in some unconventional thinking that provides the next step forward in technology. Even if it does not, it would hopefully produce graduates "intellectually engaged and familiar with the kinds of problems and the technologies that are relevant to our mission," he said. "It takes a while to get going, to get some momentum."
"They're stuck," said Richard Lanza, a senior research scientist in the nuclear science and engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Most of the detectors that we're using are stuff that was around 20 years ago," Lanza said. The science of radiation detection has not been moving forward in leaps and bounds, he said, suggesting need for a "longer-term look at the fundamentals."
Even the new Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitors, which the Homeland Security Department is pushing to deploy at the cost of more than $1 billion, use older detection materials such as sodium iodide and germanium, said Wehe, the Michigan nuclear scientist.
"There's no breakthrough there in terms of material of science," he said.
The new monitors analyze signals more effectively to pinpoint what isotopes the detectors are detecting, but the basic science behind the device is nothing new. Significantly transforming the technology and science used to detect radiation sources will take a tremendous effort, Wehe said.
Bright students are looking for just such a challenge, he said. "I think what young people are looking for is an interesting technical question. The fact that the application is homeland security is a good thing."
To hear Wehe tell it, the challenge of radiation detection is so significant that the solutions might come from far left field.
"I've been at workshops where people are looking at crazy things like training honey bees to hunt for special nuclear materials," he said.
This was not a science fiction conference either. There were serious scientists there from national laboratories and federal agencies. "It was called informally the out of the box conference, but most of us were calling it the out of your mind conference," he said.