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U.S. Department of Energy Employs RFID to Safeguard the Country

The Argonne National Laboratory developed an active RFID system that tracks nuclear materials to protect human health, the environment and national security.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 20, 2009—There are scores of asset-tracking applications that improve security or save money, time and labor, but it's hard to imagine items for which precise and continuous monitoring is more vital than drums of hazardous nuclear materials. That's why the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and its Packaging Certification Program, which certifies safe packaging for hazardous materials, turned to one of the DOE's oldest and largest research centers, the Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinois, to develop a customized, sophisticated approach for using radio frequency identification technology to continuously track radioactive and fissile materials, both while in storage and during transport. The number of drums holding such materials is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

Spent nuclear materials are stored in facilities such as Argonne's Alpha-Gamma Hot Cell Facility, where irradiated materials from various U.S. research and test reactors are kept in specialized, locked drums. Detailed paper-based records are maintained for each container, says Yung Liu, Argonne's senior nuclear engineer and RFID project manager. These records include the serial number assigned to each drum, what the drum contains and its exact location within the storage area. But the only way to closely monitor the condition of each drum—including the integrity of its seal, and environmental factors that could compromise safety—was with manual inspections (a process that is not performed frequently) to limit personnel's exposure to radiation.

Argonne National Laboratory developed a customized, sophisticated approach for using radio frequency identification technology to continuously track radioactive and fissile materials, both while in storage and during transport. Click here to view a larger version of the image.

Another concern was tracking drums of nuclear materials during transit. While a global positioning system (GPS) was used to track the location of the vehicles carrying nuclear material, the DOE had no way to constantly take inventory of the drums, or to automatically monitor each drum's environmental condition.

Argonne's scientists spent three years developing the RFID system, which was tested during a weeklong demonstration project in April 2008. The system met its goals: to manage nuclear materials for safety, security, accountability, health and environmental protection during storage, transportation and disposal. "The Argonne system can simultaneously monitor thousands of drums 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Liu says. "Any abnormal situation—such as a lost seal, a sudden shock or a rise in temperature or humidity—can trigger an alarm for immediate action." The DOE plans to deploy the RFID system to augment and modernize its existing management systems for nuclear materials. The system has already been installed at the Argonne National Laboratory, and is currently being installed at a test site in Nevada.

System Development
To build the solution, the Argonne scientists had to modify the ST-676 active 433 MHz tag made by Savi Technology, as well as develop specialized application software, a database server and Web pages to manage the tag and location data. "Active RFID was our first and only choice for this application," Liu says. The DOE required a method for identifying the drums, without a constant, clear line of sight to each. Passive tags would not have provided the necessary read range, and the metallic content of the drums would likely have interfered with RF signals used for transmitting and collecting data. Plus, the need for sensors integrated into the tag required an onboard power source.

Savi's ST-676 tag—which operates at low power but offers a long read range (approximately 100 meters, or 328 feet)— made it attractive, as did its use of the globally accepted 433 MHz band. What's more, the tag included integrated sensors that monitor the temperature, humidity and shock to which the tag is exposed. And since the tag was made to track and secure cargo containers, it included a locking mechanism that enabled it to act as a security seal.
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