ORNL plays a growing role in preparations for natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
When Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, most Americans understandably associated the department's mission with the threat of a terrorist attack. From August through October of 2005, however, the greatest threats came from hurricanes that slammed the Gulf Coast.
"There are striking similarities between a natural disaster and a terrorist incident in terms of the failure of the infrastructure, the needed response, and the economic consequences," Baylor says. "Portions of the response would not have been substantially different if a terrorist had blown up the levee."
Research in the Aftermath
ORNL received $35 million in fiscal year 2005 from DHS for research that paid benefits before, during, and after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Budhendra Bhaduri and members of his Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) group were bombarded with questions about affected populations. Using the ORNL-developed LandScan population database and modeling program (see sidebar), the GIST group produced visual results that became part of President George Bush's daily briefings the first week after Katrina struck.
"LandScan shows the number of people in various locations, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools," Bhaduri says. "The information is incredibly valuable for homeland security, which really means taking effective actions to save the lives of people known to be at risk."
ORNL's John Sorensen, an expert on evacuations and emergency responses to natural disasters and explosions at chemical facilities, discussed Hurricane Katrina's aftermath in interviews by National Public Radio and Time Magazine. Sorensen and his wife Barbara have developed a half-dozen popular training videos, including "React Fast," which have been used to train emergency responders and security people for the Olympic Games and other sites of potential terrorism.
Several of Sorensen's ORNL colleagues served as emergency resources in the wake of the hurricanes. After Katrina struck, staff responded to questions about the effects of the hurricane on the shipment of commodities by railroad. Others provided crucial information that included a response to a barge owner who wanted to know which ports along the Mississippi-Louisiana coast were open and undamaged.
ORNL's Andre Desjarlais surveyed the roofs of damaged commercial buildings along the Mississippi coast in the week following Hurricane Katrina. He examined the buildings to determine if energy-efficiency technologies recommended by the Department of Energy make roofs more or less vulnerable to wind damage. Except for buildings that house public safety functions or could serve as public shelters, he found that many buildings in Louisiana and Mississippi fared worse than similar structures he saw in Florida in 2004, perhaps because of differences in building codes. The biggest surprise came from roofs that were greatly damaged by wind-blown attachments such as air-conditioning units, lightning protection equipment, and cell towers.
A largely unanticipated problem in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the failure of emergency communications systems, including cell phones and landline phones. Only satellite phones worked. Sheriffs and Coast Guard officials could not communicate through their radio systems. ORNL's Cognitive Radio Program led by Mark Buckner and Michael Moore is developing software-defined radio (SDR) technology that will help improve emergency communication after disasters. "SDR allows use of the same hardware to communicate either over the local network or by satellite," Moore says. "Our approach could greatly enhance the interoperability of radio systems in a situation where the communication infrastructure has been destroyed."
As director of NSD's Homeland Security Programs Division, John Doesburg is convinced that ORNL and its collaborators can assist the U.S. government in developing a variety of technologies to detect and defend against bioterrorism. He cites ORNL's expertise in mouse genetics, mass spectrometry, and high-performance computing as strengths that could contribute to the nation's anti-terrorism effort.
"By modifying the genes in our unique mouse population in ORNL's new vivarium, we could learn which genes might make humans more immune or more susceptible to select disease agents, such as anthrax, and diseases endemic to certain regions," Doesburg says.
To speed up identification of biological warfare agents, which can take 15 minutes, researchers must replace traditional wet chemistry involving buffer solutions. No one can tell whether anthrax organisms are alive or dead in a human for 24 to 48 hours.
"ORNL is harnessing the power of hybrid mass spectrometry, computational science, and bioinformatics to pursue the government's grand challenge of rapid identification of select agents and endemic diseases," Doesburg says. "Our goal is 4 minutes or less to identify a select disease organism and determine its viability."
New ORNL technologies are contributing to the goal of developing more accurate, reliable detectors of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threats. Researchers have developed a mass spectrometer that detects minute traces of explosive chemicals on airline tickets. The "boarding pass analyzer" is undergoing tests at the Transportation Security Administration's Laboratory in Atlantic City, New Jersey to determine the technology's viability for major airports.
With funding from DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ORNL has led the development of the Raman integrated tunable sensor (RAMITS), a lightweight, portable, laser-based instrument that can identify and analyze a chemical or biological threat in 11 seconds or less. A surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy probe coated with nanoparticles of silver enhances RAMITS' signal more than a million times. The battery-powered, compact, cost-effective device, which has a touch screen and is simple to operate, has been licensed to ID Systems LLC, of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Mike Kuliasha, NSD chief scientist, says that RAMITS will make a critical difference for first responders involved in hazardous materials detection and firefighting who have to deal with chemical leaks from railroad cars and tanker trucks. "Sometimes HAZMAT responders must wait for hours before a chemical in a leak or spill is identified," Kuliasha says. "With RAMITS, responders can rapidly identify any chemical compound that enters the environment, including chemicals released by terrorists."
Since the department's creation, a top DHS priority has been to address the possibility that a terrorist group might attack an American city with an improvised nuclear device (IND) or a radiological dispersal device (RDD), also known as a "dirty bomb." Such a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material could contaminate and render inhabitable hundreds of square miles in an urban area. DHS has established a new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office that funds the development of passive and active radiation detectors by DOE labs.
A passive radiation detector integrated with other passive sensors has been installed in the portal monitor through which trucks move at the weigh-and-inspection station on Interstate 40 in Knoxville.
"We must not impede commerce, but we want to screen for illicit nuclear material in truck trailers and shipping containers," says Bob Wham, who leads ORNL's Fuels, Isotopes, and Nuclear Materials Group. "We are conducting tests to determine how to screen packages and containers while minimizing false alerts."
According to Wham, passive detection involves identifying radioactive materials by the gamma and neutron radiation they spontaneously emit. In active detection, neutrons or high-energy gammas are used to induce fission or other nuclear reactions and then neutrons or gammas caused by those reactions are detected.
Passive detection is needed to identify radioactive californium, cesium, cobalt, strontium, or other isotopes that could be used in dirty bombs. Active detection is required to find fissionable uranium in shipping containers that may be intended for a highly dangerous nuclear device. Detecting illicit nuclear materials in containers without causing false alerts is one of DHS's most complex and important challenges.
ORNL is a partner in DHS's Countermeasures Test Bed project for highways, railroads, and seaports, working with law enforcement personnel to figure out the most reasonable and effective protocol for deploying radiation detectors to screen containers for radioactive materials that could be intended for a terrorist bomb.
ORNL researchers also are developing more efficient radiation detection materials for portal monitors and hand-held detectors. Two radiation detector inventions have been licensed to NucSafe, an Oak Ridge company. (See Article 19 - Quickly and Accurately)
ORNL's Environmental Effects Laboratory is conducting tests to determine which commercial radiation detectors perform the best in rigorous applications. The most useful radiation detectors must be rugged and able to detect four types of radiation accurately under a variety of conditions, including extreme temperatures and high levels of humidity, vibration, shock, dust, and electromagnetic fields.
Finally, hundreds of thousands of isotope sources, many of which were produced at ORNL, are in circulation or have been abandoned. With a minimum of expertise, these sources could be diverted for use in a dirty bomb. ORNL is helping DHS with forensics and attribution research to assist law enforcement investigations. The ORNL team focuses on isotope source design, fabrication details, and isotope signatures to narrow down the possible origins of source materials that could be used in a dirty bomb. It is hoped the data collected at ORNL will not be needed.
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