The RadTruck stops here

By Doug Page
Originally published on

Imagine being able to detect a radiation source no larger than a grain of sand, determine whether it’s lethal 137cesium or the harmless potassium found in a banana, and do it in an instant from 10 feet away cruising past at 50 mph.

Such capabilities once existed only in the domain of the fictional tricorder on "Star Trek." Now, the New Jersey State Police has them.

RadTrucks have been seen cruising the streets of metropolitan New York City.

Radiation detection devices called Adaptable Radiation Area Monitors, or ARAMs, developed at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, are being mounted in the back of SUVs named RadTrucks to take counter-terrorism to the street. The New Jersey State Police has four RadTrucks. California also has a fleet of the $200,000 vehicles. The Secret Service is said to have one.

Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, radiation portal monitors were used primarily to keep plutonium and uranium from being smuggled out of nuclear facilities, or to prevent contaminated scrap metal from entering steel mills. The fear is that contraband nuclear material can be assembled into a dirty bomb. Having a fast, reliable way to detect radioactive material, particularly while the source is in transit, has been the nuclear holy grail of homeland security officials.

But when early types of radiation detectors are put on the street, they tend to alarm on harmless amounts of naturally occurring isotopes of potassium, radium, thorium and uranium found commonly in everything from bathroom tile to cat litter.

"The problem with radiation is that you find it everywhere you look, but most of what you find is not a threat," said LLNL physicist Dave Trombino, one of the ARAM's developers.

Instantaneous isotope identification is therefore mandatory for mobile detection applications. ARAM, licensed to Textron Systems, Wilmington, Mass., accomplishes this, in real time and at street speed, in the RadTrucks.

The New Jersey RadTruck project is part of the federally sponsored Securing the Cities Initiative, which focuses on increasing terrorism readiness in the regions surrounding metropolitan New York City. RadTrucks have been used to cruise the streets around the United Nations complex; Flushing Meadows for tennis’ US Open; games at Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.; and at the recent presidential debate at Belmont College, a Textron spokesperson told Homeland1.

According to Capt. Dennis McNulty, executive officer of NJSP’s Emergency Management Section, the RadTrucks can be operated by troopers after only about 10 hours of training. “RadTruck operators are then able to distinguish the signatures emitted by uranium, cesium, plutonium or potassium, either while in transit or from fixed positions.”

One advantage of the RadTrucks is that they can be rapidly deployed based on changing intelligence. Another plus is that they allow law enforcement to monitor for nuclear materials while performing routine police functions at the same time.

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