Feds at Work: Strengthened our nation’s defenses against nuclear and radioactive threats

Developed performance standards and tests for detection systems that screen nearly 7 million cargo containers entering U.S. seaports every year

Leticia Pibida with the National Institute of Standards (Photo: courtesy of NIST)

When Congress required inspection of some 7 million cargo containers entering U.S. seaports every year to ensure they don’t contain radiological materials that could be used in a terrorist attack, there was a major problem: The government didn’t have the equipment or measurement standards to accurately detect the presence of a nuclear threat.

Leticia Pibida, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was among the first to identify these deficiencies and embarked on a mission to develop accurate and sophisticated measurement standards, in conjunction with federal and state agencies, radiation instrument manufacturers and an international team of technical experts. She followed through to apply these standards and test detection equipment at numerous seaports throughout the country.

“There was a huge hole in our ability to accurately monitor and detect radiological and nuclear materials that could lead to their interception,” said James Adams, chief of the Radiation Physics Division at NIST. “Leticia recognized the problem and took action.”

Pibida’s effort to shore up defenses against the nuclear threat began in the post 9/11 era when her team initially developed four new standards in one year. Her work took on greater focus and scale with passage of the SAFE Port Act in 2006, which required new equipment and technical standards for detecting radiation to screen all containerized cargo entering U.S. seaports.

Pibida’s leadership and efforts continue today and have resulted in 25 national and international standards for detection equipment used to defend against illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials. In addition, she has worked with law enforcement and first responders to ensure the reliability of radiation detection equipment in cities and states across the country.

“There were no standards, no way to determine the threat,” said Bert Coursey, a former NIST researcher. “Leticia Pibida became the federal expert on test methods for radiation detectors. And that has been the case for the past 17 years.”

Pibida uses a handheld device to search for radioactive sources inside a shipping container (Photo: courtesy of NIST)

Pibida quickly produced an initial series of performance standards, Adams said. She has continued to convene standards-writing groups to meet new technology demands as radiation detection technologies evolve.

Developing standards was the first step. It was then critical to test the reliability of radiation monitors.

Pibida designed and carried out nearly 50 comprehensive test-and-evaluation campaigns. By analyzing the results, the detectors’ performance has continually improved, with manufacturers changing the way they build instruments.

Pibida’s work, for example, helped make testing devices more sensitive to weapons-grade radiological materials and less sensitive to naturally occurring radiation sources, including cat litter, sand and other innocuous items.

The changes in instruments have resulted in a 77% average decrease in false alarms across sea and land ports of entry, freeing Customs and Border Protection officers to conduct other important security and trade facilitation duties and expediting the flow of lawful commerce into the U.S.

Pibida is also widely praised for working collaboratively with a wide range of stakeholders to turn the science into reality.

“Leticia is very skillful, and a good negotiator,” said Don Potter, test scientist branch chief with the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office at the Department of Homeland Security. “She’s able to listen to everyone’s point of view and help them explain it so others understand the value.”

Pibida said her ability to make a difference is her primary motivation.

“I have a feeling that I’m making life better for a large community,” she said. “I used to do research and wondered, ‘Who will use this?’ When I had a chance to do something that was more applied, it was great. You can make changes faster.”

Leticia Pibida is one of 26 finalists for the 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, presented annually by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to celebrate employees who have made significant contributions to our nation’s health, safety and prosperity.

Help share their stories using #Sammies2019, and please help us recognize more inspiring federal employees in 2020 by submitting your nominations now.

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The Partnership works to revitalize our federal government by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works.

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