Once on the chopping block in favor of a more advanced system, radiation detection systems at ports of entry used to screen entire containers have been vastly improved, says the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

The lab says that improvements, called Revised Operational Settings, have been developed and are currently being implemented that result in fewer false alarms, which in turn means greater operational efficiencies. The revised settings involve selective energy-sensitive algorithms.

The work to improve the Radiation Portal Monitors (RPMs) is being done by PNNL working with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which operates the detection systems at the nation’s various ports of entry. The RPMs are used to scan almost all goods and conveyances entering the U.S. for radiation.

The ROS upgrades are being made during annual calibrations of the monitors. CBP has deployed about 1,300 RPMs, which are made by Leidos [LDOS].

PNNL says that the RPM upgrades began in April 2014 with mobile systems and have been implemented at 26 sea ports and 16 land border crossings. So far, alarm rates at sea ports have dropped by an average of 78 percent and at land border crossings by an average of 44 percent, the lab says. Overall, alarm rate reductions on mobile RPMs are expected to average about 50 percent, it adds.

Fewer alarms mean faster processing times.

PNNL says that the reductions amount to a decrease of more than 230,000 RPM alarms annually, or more than 57,000 hours in processing time. This has meant more than 88 CBP officers have been redirected to other high priority duties at an annual cost equivalent value of more than $10 million.

Over the next 10 years CBP expects to achieve another $55 million in savings due to the reduced need for RPMs in secondary inspection locations used to confirm alarms generated in primary inspection lanes.

Another benefit from the ROS upgrades has been improved safety as 70 percent of the locations have reported improvements due to less congestion and better traffic flow.

The Department of Homeland Security in 2012 formally terminated the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) program, which was intended to replace the RPMs with more advanced radiation detection systems. The ASP program was supposed to provide some detection capabilities against shielded nuclear material as well as lower false alarms, particularly around innocuous materials, but suffered from development difficulties and couldn’t meet revised requirements for use in secondary inspection. Materials such as tile and granite contain non-threatening, organic radiation that would create a nuisance alarm by an RPM.

Nuisance alarms need to be cleared by a CBP officer, which requires a lot of time. Reducing these alarms means fewer personnel are needed for RPM operations. The reduction also means that conveyances are cleared sooner, speeding up the flow of commerce.

“As a CBP Business Transformational Initiative, the ROS project has been developed as a new approach to address the non-threat alarms produced by the Leidos cargo RPMs,” says Todd Owen, assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations. “The ROS team worked on this project for approximately four years and the results of ROS have been transformational.”

Last December the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which manages the RPM program, hosted an Industry Day to provide vendors with information about replay tool capabilities and about an upcoming RPM data collection event slated for April.