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2011 RFID Journal Award Winner: Most Innovative Use of RFID—Tracking and Monitoring the Deadliest Cache

Argonne National Laboratory has developed a strategy that uses RFID to safeguard nuclear materials.
By John Edwards
Jun 01, 2011—Since long before Japan's nuclear disaster focused the world's attention on the potential dangers of nuclear energy, managers and researchers at Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) facility, have been concerned about tracking nuclear materials. The stakes are almost unimaginably high. If terrorists were to get their hands on just a single container of nuclear materials, it could conceivably result in the destruction of a major city.

Argonne National Laboratory, approximately 25 miles southwest of Chicago in the Argonne Forest section of the Cook County Forest Preserve, is a direct descendant of the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory, part of the World War II Manhattan Project. At the Met Lab, on Dec. 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi and some 50 colleagues created the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction. In 1946, the Argonne Lab, as it was then called, became the country's first national laboratory, given the mission of developing nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes. Argonne designed, built and tested the prototypes for the commercial reactors that currently produce 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

Today, Argonne employs approximately 3,200 staffers, including roughly 1,000 scientists and engineers. The lab's three general research areas are energy storage, alternative energy and nuclear energy. In 2005, Argonne researchers began laying the groundwork for using radio frequency identification to accurately track and monitor storage containers of nuclear materials at multiple DOE sites.

"In the early 2000s, RFID was hyped very much," recalls Yung Y. Liu, Argonne's group manager for packaging certification and life-cycle management. In those days, Liu and his colleagues paid close attention to the tracking initiatives being organized by Wal-Mart Stores, the U.S. Department of Defense and several other large enterprises. "It sounded a lot like what we wanted to do," he says. "If they can track their things, why can't we track ours?"

With that in mind, Liu and his colleagues began thinking of ways to use RFID to automate an existing and largely manual nuclear materials management system. "It's paper and pencil, and then data entry," Liu says, describing the current process. "And then it goes to a spreadsheet... and then a file that gets filed in a filing cabinet."

RFID would let DOE managers access a continuously updated database of nuclear materials, one that could be used to pinpoint the location of a specific container within seconds. The system would provide the visibility necessary to keep the nuclear materials safe and secure. It would allow, for the first time, item-level tracking and monitoring. "These drums—there are hundreds of thousands of them, and they're all over the United States at DOE sites," Liu says.
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