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Nathanial Zaharia

Engineer serves as “mission controller” for transport of radioactive material

Nathanial Zaharia

As a participant in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Post Bachelor’s Research Participation Program, Nathanial Zaharia aims to improve the safety and security of the transport of domestic hazardous materials, including radioactive materials that can be used in food irradiators for sterilization. By analyzing various models of tracking systems, he and his team hope to find several options to obtain the most reliability, functionality and cost-efficiency. Photo credit: Lynn Freeny, DOE

Nathanial Zaharia, who holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, spends hours of his day riding in the back of white utility van strapped into a single seat, monitoring a green-screened satellite tracking system.

He is trying to find ways to improve the security of transporting radiological materials. It is part of his role in the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), an offshoot of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s attempt to improve the identification, security and removal of high-risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world.

Zaharia received this opportunity to participate in nuclear safety research as part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Post Bachelor’s Research Participation Program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and managed by ORAU for the U.S. Department of Energy. “My research project focuses on increasing the security of domestic transportation of radioactive materials and to shorten the response time for security, law enforcement and emergency workers in the event of an incident,” said Zaharia.

An on-board tracking system is a critical component in keeping the vehicle and its cargo under close scrutiny throughout the transport process. Information provided by the tracking system can tell shipping coordinators if the transport vehicle falls short of its predetermined arrival time, deviates from its designated course or if communication from the vehicle drops entirely.

Zaharia is part of a research group whose goal is to help determine which tracking system(s) would work better for this process. “So far, we have been really successful in ruling out certain hardware we would not necessarily encourage industry to pursue,” said Aaron Adam, Zaharia’s mentor. “Other systems, we found, do a phenomenal job.”

To test each system, a three-member team composed of a driver, a navigator and a test operator, which is Zaharia, travel a specific route, which can range in distance from a few miles to more than a hundred. The navigator takes note of any traffic or weather situations that could cause a delay in the response time of the technology while Zaharia keeps an eye on the computer system.

Zaharia compares a Google Maps-version of the route, along with GPS coordinates from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, to the point-by-point route generated on screen by the tracking system and makes notes of any inconsistencies. He also tests the communication system between the in-transport computer and a computer stationed at the lab by sending and receiving messages. Part of the team’s overall strategy is to integrate the systems with the well-established U.S. Department of Energy Tracking and Communications (TRANSCOM) system, to benefit the hazardous materials transport companies. “This will allow the carriers to track all of their systems from one place instead of having to look at the individual web portals—the websites that display tracking information—for each device separately,” said Zaharia.

Besides improving tracking equipment, the team seeks to identify gaps in the overall involvement and response network between the hardware’s developers, the hazardous materials’ shippers and government protection agencies like local law enforcement, the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration.

He said his time in this program increased his appreciation for transportation security, a field he plans to continue to do research in while pursuing his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Tennessee.

“I think what we do has some sort of positive impact on the world. Radioactive sources are used in so many industries like medicine, food processing, basic research and more. I think it is pretty cool if I can have a little hand in making radioactive transports safer.”