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New system heightens protection against WMD at foreign ports

December 17, 2008 Share This!

Systems modified to detect radiation

  • Detector Networks International will design and system integrate six straddle carriers built by Isoloader that will have the ability to detect radiation on containers at major seaports around the world for NNSA's Megaports Initiative. Photo courtesy of Detector Networks International.

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RICHLAND, Wash. – At seaports around the world, long-legged heavy equipment called straddle carriers pick up shipping containers with the singular purpose of moving them from one location to another. Soon, these systems will play a new role – they will detect dangerous materials being smuggled for potential use in weapons of mass destruction.

The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has recently awarded a $23 million contract to Detector Networks International L.L.C., a New Mexico Corporation, to design and manufacture six straddle carriers that will have radiation detection capabilities. These modified straddlers will detect radiation and, when found, identify if it’s a type that could be used in making weapons of mass destruction.

Millions of containers that are shipped through foreign ports are offloaded and then later loaded onto another ship without ever leaving the port -- referred to as “transshipments.” Currently, few of those containers are scanned for materials that could be used in a nuclear or dirty bomb.

“These new straddlers will take advantage of commercial technology while increasing our ability to scan transshipped cargo for dangerous nuclear and radiological materials,” said Dave Kostorowski, PNNL program manager. “By mounting detectors on a mobile platform, we should maximize the number of containers scanned and still minimize the impact on port operations.”

PNNL managed the year-long competitive contracting process for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Megaports Initiative.

The modified straddlers will use sodium iodide detectors for initial radiation detection and high-purity germanium detectors, which are less susceptible to background interference than other systems, for isotope identification. With their tall legs, they can maneuver over and scan rows of cargo containers stacked up to four high.

DNI will deliver the first modified straddler for testing in about nine months. When field tests are complete, the company will build and deliver five more systems. The DNI team consists of MEI Technologies Inc., Thermo-Fisher Scientific Inc., ORTEC, Geodetics and Isoloader.


The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Second Line of Defense established the Megaports Initiative in 2003 to screen containerized cargo for special nuclear and other radiological materials as it moves through the global maritime shipping network. To reduce the risk of illicit trafficking of these materials of proliferation-concern, the Megaports Initiative installs radiation detection systems at high-volume international seaports. In recognition of the fact that in today’s global economy a nuclear or radiological incident at one port could adversely impact nearly every major economy, the Megaports Initiative also serves to enhance the security of the global maritime shipping system and helps protect global economic stability. The initiative, which began in 2003, is a capacity building program that works with partner countries to deploy radiation detection systems at major international seaports around the world. Currently, the Megaports Initiative is operational at a total of 19 major international seaports around the world where containerized cargo is typically driven through fixed position radiation portal monitors that are installed at the entry and exit gates of the ports.

DNI is a systems integrator of turn-key radiation detector solutions. DNI connects problems to solutions using a broad based expertise in program management, detection physics, design engineering, and systems integration.

Tags: Energy, National Security, Operations, Radiation Detection

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy. For more information, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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