Strengthened our nation’s defenses against nuclear and radioactive threats by developing performance standards and tests for detection systems that screen nearly 7 million cargo containers entering U.S. seaports every year

Leticia Pibida, Ph.D.

When Congress required inspection of some 7 million cargo containers entering U.S. seaports every year to ensure they do not contain radiological materials that could be used in a terrorist attack, there was a major problem: The government did not have the right equipment or adequate 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. She soon 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 then 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 used 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.”

Adams said Pibida quickly produced an initial series of performance standards. As radiation detection technologies have evolved, she has continued to convene standards-writing groups to meet new technology demands.

While developing the standards was the first step, it was then critical to conduct the actual tests of the radiation monitors to ensure their reliability.

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

Pibida’s work, for example, has helped make the testing devices more sensitive to weapons-grade radiological materials and less sensitive to naturally occurring sources of radiation, including innocuous items such as cat litter, sand and certain types of fertilizers.

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 coming into the United States.

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. “Her collaboration skills, tact and diplomacy are outstanding. She’s able to listen to everyone’s point of view and help them explain it so others understand the value.”

Potter also said Pibida keeps the safety of Americans foremost in her mind.

“Her dedication to protect the public has been her primary focus,” he said. “She has accepted leadership positions and taken on the commitments to get these things done.”

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.”