NPRE Laboratory (NPRE 451) is a course that introduces students to radiation detection techniques through a series of different hands-on laboratories. After getting familiar with state-of-the-art radiation detection systems, at the end of the semester, students get to design and perform a small-scale experiment of their choice, in an “open lab.” They present the results to the class and are evaluated by instructors and peers on a final report and presentation.
During the Fall 2019 semester, the open lab main theme was the characterization of the radioactive fingerprint of the UIUC campus. Students explored and tested different methods to characterize the campus’s baseline radioactivity, which would serve as a reference in case of an unexpected event.
Accurately recording large amount of detection data and keeping track at the same time of other important information—such as the sampling location—can be challenging, so RadResponder seemed to be an excellent tool to support this effort. RadResponder is the national standard and Whole Community solution for the management of radiological data. It is a product of collaboration between Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Energy (DOE)/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
NPRE Lab introduced the use of RadResponder in the classroom for the first time. The groups of students took three different approaches to characterize the UIUC campus’s radioactive fingerprint. “The primary goal of our experiment was to test soil and milk samples for radioactive nuclides,” student Andrew Fink said. “This included local areas such as farmland and riverbeds, as well as further regions for comparison. These tests could highlight regions with higher background radiation or more naturally occurring radiation. Additionally, in the case of a major radiological release, the collected data can serve as a baseline to assess the increase in radiation. Our group performed lengthy (10 hour) detection recordings with a high-purity germanium detector to scan for gamma sources in the milk and soil samples. In order to do this, Marinelli beakers (Figure 1) were used to increase detector coverage and the soil samples were dried to reduce attenuation.”
“We utilized RadResponder to record the location, date, and time we collected our samples from,” Fink said. “We then uploaded the recorded spectra for the various samples along with the relevant background radiation picked up by a Geiger Counter. Date uploaded to RadResponder now serves as a database for such recordings that may prove useful for others in the future.”
John Beal and his group measured the effects of shifting weather patterns (e.g. wind, rain) on background radiation counts. “In our open lab, the background radiation was measured continuously over an extended period of time, using an inorganic scintillator detector,” Beal said. “The measured count rates were uploaded to the RadResponder website along with other specified details relating to the measurements taken (e.g., detector location). These measurements could then be correlated with weather data over the same timeframe. I think that using RadResponder generated a higher level of engagement because of an increased sense of purpose to the labs performed. Since the data collected could be uploaded to generate a ‘map’ of the background radiation near UIUC, the labs seemed to carry a greater relevance outside of academics. I believe that having a tool like RadResponder to use for uploading the data improved the quality of our work by providing us with a framework to format our data in a reasonable way.”
The main goal of the project of the third group was to test the effectiveness of different materials around the UIUC campus (Figure 2) for retrospective dosimetry by two techniques used in standard passive dosimetry and material dating, such as thermal luminescence (TL) and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) (Figure 3).
“This technique is also applied in cases when an unplanned radiation release occurs, and no detection system is available at the time of the event,” student Natalie Gaughan said. “RadResponder allowed us to share large quantities of data among all group members,” said Alvaro Pizarro, another member of the group who performed the retrospective dosimetry project. “This software tool gave group members the access to the data necessary for conducting data analysis.” Overall, RadResponder was effectively used in the classroom in the framework of a laboratory course and most students reported an increased engagement with the lab topics.
The work described in this article was possible thanks to the kind contribution of Dr. Hout of the Illinois State Geological Survey, who helped with the TL and OSL experiments, Dr. Margenot and the Crop Science Soils Lab, who assisted students in obtaining soil samples from around the Midwest and more distant locations, such as Japan, and Dr. Cardoso and Dr. Tooley, at the Department of Animal Sciences, who provided milk samples. We gratefully acknowledge Mr. Blais, FEMA RadResponder Program Manager, for granting the students access to RadResponder and Ms. Allston, RadResponder Program Analyst, for her assistance with the software.