New nuclear detection technology set to thwart development of ‘dirty bombs’

A new nuclear detection technology is set to provide ports and customs authorities with a cheaper and more efficient method of countering terrorists seeking to smuggle materials such as uranium, plutonium or radiological components for ‘dirty bombs.’

The Modular Detection System for Special Nuclear Material (MODES_SNM) has been developed under a European Commission FP7 programme spanning the continent and has already been trialled by customs authorities in the ports of Rotterdam and Dublin.

Consortium members include Padova and Insubria universities in Italy and Liverpool University in the UK; the National Centre for Nuclear Research in Poland; Arktis Radiation Detectors and ETH Zurich, Switzerland; CAEN Spa, Italy and end users such as the Revenue Commissioners in Ireland.

MODES_SNM, which can be configured to operate from a van or even a car or an SUV, is claimed to be the first system in the world to combine fast and thermal neutron detection. It is also a modular and man-portable system. The baseline unit comprises five neutron and two gamma modules, a computer and electronics module and a UPS battery.

Arktis founder and CEO Dr Rico Chandra said modifications have been made to the system following the port trials, responding to requests from the end users, but these were minor. The system is now available commercially and he expects the first order to be placed by a European user before the end of the first quarter next year.

Chandra said that MODES_SNM has several advantages over current systems including ease of usability, with operators quickly able to employ the technology; it is battery operated with the ability to offer up to eight hours autonomy and it offers higher sensitivity. The system reduces false alarms through the ability to detect fission sources such as plutonium more accurately and precisely by distinguishing their radiation signature from natural backgrounds.

In addition, one of the major benefits is that MODES_SNM does not use Helium3 (He3), the expensive raw material typically used in most neutron detection systems.

‘Arktis is under contract from the US government DARPA research organisation to develop the next generation neutron detection systems without using He3,’ said Chandra. ‘In the future, it will be more difficult to use He3 in detection systems because it will not be readily available and, as a result, we have developed a different technology proprietary to Arktis.’

Most ports currently use systems based on He3 but will need to look at alternative systems in the future when they face obsolescence management issues, while new installations will automatically move towards the new system.

‘There is also considerable interest from a number of ports outside the EU where we are bidding alongside systems integrators as part of the security architecture,’ said Chandra.

Phil Rood is a freelance journalist who can be contacted at prood91@gmail.com