The threats the World faces from Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) substances are probably higher than they have ever been. Arguably, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction now present the biggest challenges, necessitating a global re-evaluation of disaster response protocols. Illustrated by the COVID 19 pandemic, Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, the Fukushima and Chernobyl Nuclear Disasters, when responding reactively, control is quickly lost, and major consequences ensue as a result.
Lack of preparation for such events ultimately leads to poor decision-making and, therefore, inefficient crisis management. To minimise humanitarian and economic suffering, clarity is essential in making such significant decisions. Concrete data from reliable technology forms the foundation; the fundamental link in the disaster response chain. Training with this technology and developing an in-depth understanding of the data it produces enables the rapid deployment of rational, context-specific action.
The need for such innovation in CBRN disaster management is becoming increasingly apparent to policy-makers; their proposed steps forward are beginning to align with the steps already taken by companies at the forefront of CBRN detection and identification technology. By equipping decision-makers with effective intelligence, preventative policies can begin to take form, paving the way for refreshed strategies in responding to and monitoring biological, radiological and nuclear disasters with a certainty and swiftness never seen before.
In the face of biological threats, the intelligence must be specific to the pathogen strain and location, detailing what the biological threat is. In this way, targeted action can be taken before it becomes an epidemic or global pandemic.
Biological threats can be categorised as naturally occurring, accidental or deliberately deployed pathogens. Specifically, those that are deliberately deployed are synthetically engineered pathogens designed to target specific ethnic groups, animals or plant species, or, are weaponised, naturally occurring organisms like anthrax. As outlined by the UK government’s ‘Biological Security Strategy: summary of public response’, currently, the risk of this becoming reality is escalating due to growth in antimicrobial resistance, natural vector borne diseases becoming more likely with climate change and globalisation, as well as the lack of international oversight over high-level containment biological laboratories.
Gene sequencing technology is vital in approaching biothreats with targeted, preventative action. In the instance of COVID 19, sequencing was essential to distinguish different variants, allowing strain-specific measures to be taken e.g. changing social distancing in response to the more transmissible but less virulent Omicron variant. However, to facilitate regional, national and international early warning systems, sequencing must be scaled up. Although still effective, contemporary sequencing techniques are time-consuming, requiring infrastructure such as staffed laboratories and multiple tests. A scaled-up gene sequencing solution demands automation; the provision of a continuous stream of data directly from the field.
Currently in development, Kromek’s biothreat detection early warning system has incorporated an in situ sequencing platform to achieve this. To counteract bioterrorism and bioweapon deployment, this system is being designed to run autonomously and continuously, producing agnostic data in situ from detected mutating, known and unknown variants of different synthetic or natural pathological agents. Analysis takes place in near-real time, and the data produced can be viewed remotely in an operations room, on a computer or smartphone. In principle, multiple of these self-contained units could be placed in various locations e.g. within transport links, key infrastructure sites or areas with high population densities, and then networked. If a biothreat is detected and tagged as highly contagious or highly transmissible for instance, the appropriate measures can be taken to optimise public safety. This facilitates the rapid development and coordination of specific early warning counter measures on regional, national and global scales.
In 2022, Kromek won first place in NATO’s Allied Command Transformation Innovation Challenge awards for this system. Its promise as a biosecurity solution is also reinforced by its overlap with the UK government’s Biological Security Strategy Refresh for Autumn 2022. Kromek’s proposed solution answers their call for an early warning system that provides near-real time biothreat detection of a broad range of pathological agents. It utilises the strengths already established in genomic sequencing and bioinformatics stated as an ‘Emerging R&D Priority’ in biothreat surveillance by the UK government.
Compared to biological and chemical incidents, the results of a radiological or nuclear event are more predictable, therefore, once detected, a pre-prepared, rehearsed response can be set in motion with more assurance. That does not mean to say the outcomes of such incidents are any less severe.
There are various scenarios that demand an effectively orchestrated, coordinated radiological or nuclear response: a nuclear strike, a major radiological event resulting from a natural or human-caused disaster, the deliberate dispersion of radioactive material e.g. in the event of a terrorist attack, or an accidental event such as a leak at a nuclear power plant. The likelihood of these radiological and nuclear disasters occurring is increasing, due to the current state of the political environment, posing a radiological threat equal to or possibly greater than that of the Cold War. Cooperative international frameworks discouraging use of weapons of mass destruction are weakening, and relying on the morals of others to leave radiological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction untouched is far from realistic. Furthermore, the global urgency for nuclear power in response to the climate crisis may mean nuclear accidents are likely to become more frequent.
In response to such incidents, national and international efforts must be holistic; the threat detected, identified, and mapped. This effective intelligence drives preparation for nuclear and radiological events in advance; taking preventative action such as delivering the appropriate public message to minimise panic and contamination, as well as providing suitable, modern PPE equipment and context-specific training to first responders and healthcare providers.
Managing, monitoring and responding to radiological and nuclear incidents effectively is reliant upon rapid response spectrometry capability: an array of networked detectors that quickly and accurately detect and identify any radioactive material present. There are several moving parts to this response, the first being the need to track the movement of potentially harmful material. Permanently positioned at border posts, around cities, at communication nodes or on key transport routes, static detectors could immediately detect the presence of dangerous levels of gamma and neutron radiation, even if shielded. Coupled with mobile detectors on vehicles, drones or even in the hands of or on the belt of those on patrol, the radioactive material can be tracked and seized, with remote decision-makers coordinating the response, viewing the data from each detector in near-real time. Even the smallest sizes of dangerous radioactive material must be detected, as detailed in HJS’ ‘Radiological Terrorism’ Report, even a piece of radioactive material as small as half a chocolate bar can cause devastation over an area of 10km2.
If a nuclear or radiological incident does occur, it is crucial that actionable data is provided regarding the whereabouts of hotspots (the intensity of the radiation) and the identity of the isotopes present. Knowledge of the specific radioisotope or mixture present is essential for the formation of more context-specific, logistical responses, something previous, dated technologies like Geiger Muller tubes or dosimeters are not capable of. For example, by identifying the half-lives of the radioisotopes present, decision-makers can determine when the affected area is safe for re-entry to begin a clean-up. Furthermore, by mapping out the location of hotspots from detectors fixed onto drones or vehicles, safe evacuation routes can be identified. However, the state of the environment and atmosphere after such an incident is rarely stagnant e.g. the presence of wind and water can further disperse radioactive material. Therefore, the ability to continuously monitor the situation with near-real time data is fundamental; any responses already in motion can quickly be adapted to maintain control of the situation. Those operating the drones and analysing the data must be able to do so remotely, minimising further contamination and putting no more lives at risk.
Filling these roles in radiological and nuclear crisis management are Kromek’s extensive range of gamma neutron detectors, already in use by several security forces all over the world. The D5 RIID, the lightest RIID on the market, rapidly identifies and pinpoints radiological threats, even those from mixed or/and weak sources and highly masked environments. Operational as a handheld device but also at a distance, the D5 generates spectral data on screen or from a PC or laptop, adaptable to the situation and prioritising user safety in high intensity environments. Even lighter, the D3S ID can obtain spectral data in seconds over a large focal area from a hand, drone or vehicle, four times faster than the RIID standard. Deployable after 10 minutes of training with a long battery life and wearability, the D3S ID is optimised for usability. Both detectors are easily adoptable into any existing network platform, providing rapid reach-back to remote decision makers, informing coordinated responses across entire cities or regions.
With geopolitical unrest and climate change both present and likely to escalate in the future, never has there been a more urgent call for the strengthening of radiological, nuclear and biological global preparedness, and for modern devices to provide a foundation for these modern solutions.