Lab says ray can see nuclear materials

Device more effective than X-rays in finding smuggled weapons

February 23, 2005|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a muon cosmic ray screening device that can accurately detect smuggled nuclear weapons and materials in any vehicle or container, the nuclear lab reported yesterday.

According to Los Alamos officials, the device would provide an enormous advantage over X-ray scanning equipment, which can generate dangerous amounts of radiation and cannot penetrate lead containers and other shielding.

Several test models of the scanner have been built and successfully operated, and work on a full-size prototype has begun, the laboratory said.

"We expect it will be completed this summer," said Rick Chartrand, a member of the Los Alamos project team in New Mexico.

Large enough to scan a 50-foot trailer truck or a typical 20-foot-long ship container, the new devices would cost about $1 million each and could be used for screening vehicles at border crossings or ship cargo at major ports.

Its essential parts are two sets of parallel tubular sensors constructed so that large trucks and other vehicles could drive through or the sensors would fit over ship containers.

In its threat analysis report for the year just ended, the CIA said: "The threat of terrorists using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials remained high."

Though few believe that terrorist groups possess the sophisticated knowledge and means to build a nuclear weapon, that possibility exists - as does the more likely prospect of terrorists deploying a so-called "dirty bomb" that would scatter radioactive material over a large area with a conventional explosion.

Despite the concern over these threats, less than 5 percent of the cargo entering the United States is examined, largely because the government lacks an efficient and reliable means of doing so.

The Department of Homeland Security has been approached about the muon cosmic ray device but has made no decision on its deployment.

"We believe we've worked through all of the major obstacles to building a prototype system for a range of security scenarios," said Chris Morris, another Los Alamos scientist.

Chartrand said the new system has proved to be accurate within a 3 percent margin of error, and "we think we can continue to improve that."

At present, it takes 60 seconds for the muon system to complete its scan of a vehicle or object. The scientists expect to reduce that time to 20 seconds, Chartrand said, making it feasible for use with a large volume of motor traffic or cargo.

The muon device was developed and funded by the Los Alamos nuclear lab, which is part of the Department of Energy and one of three such facilities in the country. The labs invent and develop new technology and products but do not manufacture them.

Scientists at the lab had been studying the possibility of using muon cosmic rays for screening purposes but the project did not get its full impetus until the Sept. 11 attacks. It received its principal funding in October 2003.

X-ray devices such as those used at airports require the generation and focusing of radiation beams that can penetrate luggage or ordinary metal packaging material but not dense lead and similar shielding. Also, they produce images that must be interpreted by an operator.

An X-ray system large and powerful enough for vehicles and ships' containers not only would have a poor success rate but would pose a significant health hazard, according to the team's report.

"If you had illegal migrants inside a container you would kill them with X-rays," Chartrand said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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