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Scientists Seek More Accurate Cargo Scanners

May 2, 2011


Scientists in North Carolina are pursuing new cargo scanning technology capable of more accurately identifying nuclear- and radiological-weapon ingredients by making use of newly discovered atomic “fingerprints,” Duke University said on Thursday (see GSN, April 28).

The High Intensity Gamma-Ray Source generates beams that interact in specific ways with radioactive materials including uranium and plutonium. Such interactions might someday be used to identify weapon-grade uranium and other dangerous atomic materials amid benign radiation sources, Duke University nuclear physicist Mohammad Ahmed said in a press release. Ahmed’s team is examining the distinct patterns in which the atomic nuclei of different materials emit neutrons when exposed to the beam.

In another research effort, scientists were observing fluorescence patterns generated by collisions between atomic nuclei and rays generated by the HIGS device. Materials with different nuclear structures produce unique patterns, said Duke physicist Calvin Howell.

Howell and his colleagues are examining the patterns produced by potential nuclear- and radiological-weapon ingredients, as well as of steel and lead, which might be used in shielding for atomic contraband.

The Homeland Security Department’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office provided a $2 million grant to Ahmed’s team, while Howell’s project has received a comparable amount of funding.

The United States is still pursuing technology to meet the terms of the 2006 SAFE Port Act, which is intended to prevent smuggling of nuclear or other WMD materials through U.S. seaports. Roughly 11 million cargo containers continue to enter the United States on an annual basis without significant scrutiny, according to the Duke release (Duke University release, April 28).

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