PNNL Uses George Prout Pool in Richland for Research Testing - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

PNNL Uses George Prout Pool in Richland for Research Testing

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RICHLAND, WA. - Scientific equipment for research often calls to mind microscopes or even supercomputers but, sometimes, you just need a really big pool of water.

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found just what they need at the City of Richland pool.

From Nov. 12-15 they will place equipment in and around the pool to simulate physical security systems used to protect radioactive materials located at sterilization facilities around the country.

No radioactive material will be used in the tests.

There are many commercial facilities across the country that sterilize a wide variety of products from medical syringes and IV bags to food products.

The most common way to kill harmful microbes on products is by exposing the products to radiation in specialized facilities.

Sterilizing products imported from or exported to foreign countries protects consumers and medical patients from potential disease.

In this U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved process, the energy passes through the plastics, foods or other products and leaves no residual radiation.

Radioactive sources used in the process are stored in pools of water, which shields the radiation.

Modular racks containing long narrow sources called pencils are briefly raised out of the water to irradiate the microbes as the products are rolled into this special containment area of the plant on a conveyor belt.

Then, the racks are lowered back into the water when the irradiation process is complete.

The sources - typically cobalt 60 - are considered secure from theft, in part, because it's not safe for humans to enter the protected space where they are housed.

To increase that certainty, the National Nuclear Security Administration has asked PNNL to evaluate the potential vulnerability to theft of a portion of the material.

PNNL will set up a mock source assembly rack at the George Prout Pool to test how long it might take a "bad guy" to remove some of the simulated pencils from the rack. A pencil is about 18 inches long and less than a half-inch in diameter.

"There are absolutely no radioactive materials involved in the testing," said Aaron O'Malley, PNNL project manager. "It's really about the mechanics and materials of the rack holding modules full of simulated pencils and how long it might take a would-be thief to get to the source and remove it."

The Richland pool is not as large as real shielding pools in an irradiation facility but provides enough depth to test a simulated theft of the sources.

PNNL staff along with local contractors will put decking and scaffolding over the pool, and equipment in the water to simulate parts of a commercial facility.

They will then invite role-playing thieves to attempt to steal the source.

The research team will begin setting up for the test on Thursday Nov. 12 with a dry run taking place on Friday evening to simulate the low light conditions thieves would experience in an actual facility.

The test will continue on Saturday with the pool returned to normal service on Monday.