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RFID Tracks Radioactive Materials Used by Oil Services Providers to Explore New Well Sites

The system, developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is being tested by Baker Hughes to monitor the location and usage of such materials.
By Claire Swedberg
May 18, 2015

Following approximately 18 months of development and testing, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is proceeding to field pilots of a system to wirelessly and automatically track radioactive materials used in oil well drilling to ensure that they do not end up in the wrong hands.

PNNL, located in Richland Wash., is one of 17 U.S. Department of Energy research facilities in the United States aimed at finding energy solutions, among other goals. In 2004, the National Nuclear Security Administration launched an effort to identify, secure, remove or manage the disposition of high-risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials. This project is currently funded through the National Nuclear Security Administration's Global Material Security, Radiological Security Program.

An rTag and an MCU (shown here mounted on the upper right wall of a storage compartment on a Baker Hughes wire-line well-logging truck) verify the presence of three tagged shielded sources and measure the amount of radioactivity they emit.
Such materials are used by the oil and gas companies, which employ a process known as wire-line well logging, requiring the use of radioactive sources—sealed in metal containers—to characterize a well and predict its ability to produce oil or gas.

The radioactive sources, which are transported from a vault at a regional home base to these well-logging sites, are vulnerable to theft by terrorists, or to other damage or loss during transportation or use onsite. Therefore, in 2014, PNNL launched a project to develop the system, known as Mobile Source Transit Security (MSTS). The project has led to the development of a solution that uses RFID and satellite communication technologies, along with sensors, to track the radioactive sources.

Brion Burghard, PNNL's senior research scientist
At the well-logging sites, oil and gas companies drill into the ground and, after removing a neutron or gamma source from its protective shield, use a wire line to lower it down the drill hole to identify rock formation patterns, and the presence and size of porous formations. Companies can use the neutron source (Am-241 Be) to help them identify the presence of hydrogen-containing compounds, such as oil, gas and water, by analyzing the return backscattered neutron emissions from the well. They can use the gamma source (Cs-137) to help them determine the density and porosity of the surrounding material, again by analyzing the backscattered gamma emissions. A wire-line well-logging truck delivers the sources and tools, as well as the lines that drop the source into the hole. When the testing process is over, each source is returned to its shield in order to reduce the amount of radioactivity emitting from it, and the truck takes it back to its vault.

The truck driver may need to transport the sources a long distance. Because the trip could take several days, the driver could, in some cases, park the truck at hotels overnight, as well as at other sites of fueling or rest stops. The sources' security becomes vulnerable at such times.

PNNL began looking into technology solutions to create an automated system of tracking the material from the vault to the drill site and back. It worked closely with Baker Hughes, the oil and gas services provider that transports the sources.

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