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Feds hail trials of new nuke-sniffing tech

Neutron beams probe cat litter, bananas

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Officials at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hope to upgrade America's defences against smuggled nuclear weapons or materials in the near future, after successful tests at the New York container terminal.

Vayl Oxford, chief of the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, told reporters that trials had gone well. Oxford is scheduled to report on the new technology to Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff in July, and is “very optimistic that when we go to the secretary this summer he will give us permission to go to production.”

Current container-scanning portals in use at American points of entry have their problems. They generate a lot of false alarms, triggered by naturally radioactive cargoes such as cat litter, bananas and granite. Harassed Customs officials then have to manually search through the containers in question.

Worse than this, it's distinctly feasible to fool the present generation of kit using quite simple means. Enriched uranium, the material most easily made into atomic bombs, emits only low-energy gamma radiation. This can be stopped by a fairly thin sheet of lead, so nuke-smugglers with a modest amount of tech savvy could shield uranium consignments or weapons and avoid tripping the detectors.

Methods of overcoming these obstacles are complex, but within reach. Next-gen scanner portals will spy out enriched uranium even behind lead shielding, by zapping cargo containers with X-rays or neutrons. Done right, this can cause the uranium to emit radiation which will penetrate lead and register on detection instruments. There are still snags – neutrons, for example, won't go through common cargoes like food, clothes or wood – but nuke-sniffing US boffins have ways round these too.

The USA doesn't limit itself to scanning cargo after it's already arrived, either – which does make sense when it's nuclear bombs you're worried about. In addition to DHS initiatives at US points of entry, other federal agencies are mounting a determined push to check as much stuff as possible before it's even despatched towards America.

As long ago as 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported (pdf) that the Energy, State and Defense departments had spent a cool $500m installing nuclear detection kit in various overseas locations, actually more than the $300m DHS had then spent in America. The GAO beancounters said that a lot of the cash had been wasted, however, due to wrangling among the different groups of Feds and poor organisation. In particular, it was noted that “about half of the radiation portal monitors provided to one country in the former Soviet Union were never installed or were not operational.”

Overseas programmes are still underway nonetheless, with the DHS announcing two days ago that nuclear scanners were up and running in Pakistan and Honduras and that plans for more machinery at Southampton, Singapore, Busan and Salalah were on track.

Presumably all this gear is old-school stuff, prone to banana or feline-hygiene false positives, and unable to deal with lead shielding. It will have to be replaced by the new neutron and X-ray bombardment rigs in due course, doubtless leading to some eye-watering expense even in a US federal-government context. Even so, funding problems seem unlikely in today's security climate.

It seems that Americans will soon be able to merrily import as much cat litter as they like, without fear of lead-wrapped nukes concealed within. ®

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