Nuclear detection office starts new round of domestic tests

Studies will examine performance of portable devices in detecting radiation sources.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office this month is conducting its second major series of equipment tests, examining the performance of portable devices in detecting radiation sources ranging from common industrial materials to plutonium.

After testing fixed portal-type monitors in October, the Homeland Security Department office this week began a monthlong series of tests on existing and "next-generation" portable detectors. In particular, the office is trying to learn about the devices' range and their ability to identify various threats.

"A critical component of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office's program is high-fidelity testing and evaluation using test objects and configurations representative of actual threats," office Director Vayl Oxford said in a release. "Characterization of detection systems will provide for more-educated acquisition and deployment decisions."

Nuclear materials used in the tests will include plutonium and highly enriched uranium, office spokeswoman Tracy Tiell said in an interview this week. The office is testing hand-held, backpack and vehicle-mounted detectors, Tiell said.

"The hand-held and the backpacks will … have a conveyance of material that will go by on the test track in front of these detectors. There are also the mobile units - the vehicles, vans in this case, will drive by a source, whether it's special nuclear material or just a common industrial product," she said.

All detectors being tested this month are of the passive variety, Tiell said. Passive detectors work by sensing radiation emitted naturally by sources, while active detectors externally stimulate radiation.

The tests are being conducted at the office's testing ground within the Energy Department's remote Nevada Test Site.