Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Security United States Science

Program To Detect Smuggled Nuclear Bombs Stalls 224

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the i-see-a-business-opportunity-here dept.
Pickens writes "The NY Times reports that a program to detect plutonium or uranium in shipping containers has stalled because the United States has run out of helium 3, a crucial raw material needed to build the 1,300 to 1,400 machines to be deployed in ports around the world to thwart terrorists who might try to deliver a nuclear bomb to a big city by stashing it in one of the millions of containers that enter the United States every year. Helium 3 is an unusual form of the element that is formed when tritium, an ingredient of hydrogen bombs, decays — but the government mostly stopped making tritium in 1989 after accumulating a substantial stockpile of Helium 3 as a byproduct of maintaining nuclear weapons. 'I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable,' says Representative Brad Miller, chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the problem. Helium 3 is not hazardous or even chemically reactive, and it is not the only material that can be used for neutron detection. The Homeland Security Department has older equipment that can look for radioactivity, but it does not differentiate well between bomb fuel and innocuous materials that naturally emit radiation like cat litter, ceramic tiles and bananas — and sounds false alarms more often. In a letter to President Obama, Miller called the shortage 'a national crisis' and said the price had jumped to $2,000 a liter from $100 in the last few years. With continuing concern that Al Qaida or other terrorists will try to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States, Congress has mandated that, by 2012, all containers bound for the US be inspected overseas."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Program To Detect Smuggled Nuclear Bombs Stalls

Comments Filter:
  • by tjstork (137384) <todd...bandrowsky@@@gmail...com> on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:12PM (#30207834) Homepage Journal

    The moon is covered in helium 3. There, we have to have a manned lunar colony in order to be safe from terrorists!

    • And we don't even have to man it! We can use clones and HALs with Kevin Spacey's voice.

      -FL

    • by Larryish (1215510)

      Oh wow.

      I am SOOO trying to think of something clever to say that involves DHS, TSA, and my "radioactive banana".

    • I would stand up and give a Rebel Yell if head screw at NASA got a memo stating, "We NEED a Moon Base with a working H3 Refinery, YESTERDAY!!! Where the hell is it?" Sincerly Barack. Looks like another Disney script in the making...
  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:19PM (#30207912) Homepage

    Sure, this was foreseeable. But at the time nobody needed large quantities of this sort of radiation-detection gear, and nobody foresaw circumstances where we'd suddenly develop a huge demand for it. So when production was stopped, nobody saw the consequences as being any major problem.

    • Is that because they hadn't seen The Sum of all fears yet?

    • by thermopile (571680) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:43PM (#30208210) Homepage
      There are other neutron detection technologies out there. Commercial nuclear power reactors have used other technologies for years. [gepower.com]

      Boron-10 lined proportional counters, fission chambers, boron trifluoride, lithium doped glass ... there are lots of other options out there. None of them may have quite the same sensitivity, but you can just pack more sensors in to overcome sensitivity.

      To make a slashdot analogy, it's kind of like if all Debian developers caught swine flu and perished. Not a big deal, just move over to Ubuntu or Fedora.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by MichaelSmith (789609)

        if all Debian developers caught swine flu and perished. Not a big deal, just move over to Ubuntu

        Ummm...

        • by wizardforce (1005805) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:02PM (#30208408) Journal

          If Debian just went poof, Ubuntu would still exist; it's just that the development cycle would likely take a serious hit. Either that or they'd pull a Linux Mint and completely rewrite everything to be based off of Fedora or something. Anyway to get this back on topic... The real problem with the Helium-3 shortage is Tritium which decays into Helium-3 over time. The government didn't anticipate needing truckloads of Helium-3 to detect nukes entering the country so not enough Tritium was stockpiled specifically to make Helium-3. We get most of the Helium-3 from our Hydrogen bomb stockpile which uses the Deuterium + Tritium fusion reaction. Since we didn't need much Helium-3 or Tritium, we didn't put the Li-6 + n => T + He4 reaction to good use but we can now. We also as the GP noted, have the option of using alternative detectors although their effectiveness may not be as high as Helium-3 based detectors. So in other words, it's an annoyance but not really the doom and gloom that the summary suggests.

      • by hardburn (141468)

        Wow, didn't even read the summary:

        The Homeland Security Department has older equipment that can look for radioactivity, but it does not differentiate well between bomb fuel and innocuous materials that naturally emit radiation like cat litter, ceramic tiles and bananas — and sounds false alarms more often.

        Other types of detectors work in nuclear power plants because nobody is trying to ship a boatload of coffee beans through the middle of a power plant.

        • Don't worry, I read the summary. I neglected to account for slack-jawed troglodytes like yourself trying to pass themselves off as nuclear engineers. My bad.

          Nuclear instruments, like those sold by GE Reuter Stokes [gepower.com] and LND [lndinc.com] detect neutrons -- they infer the power of a reactor by measuring how many neutrons leak out of the reactor core. (They are calibrated by comparing the analog readout under a known power condition ... say, by the flow meters going into a turbine, in a process called a calorimetr
    • Well, not directly He3 I guess, but we did talk about a helium shortage coming... http://news.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/01/14/0219246 [slashdot.org]
  • Helium 3 is also used in cryogenic coolers that reach temperatures below 0.4K. These are used for cooling radiotelescope bolometers and other exotic scientific instruments. I remember pricing it a few years ago for a bolometer we had that lost its He3, and being astounded at the price. Sounds like it was a bargain back then.
    • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:35PM (#30208122)

      Run 3He through a polarizer and feed it to someone in an MR scanner, and it lights up the airspace inside the lungs like a Christmas tree. Makes it dead easy to see ventilation defects (emphysema, etc.) and functional issues that are very difficult to spot with any other imaging technique. But Homeland Security Theater has jacked the price so high that even by medical-procedure standards it's prohibitively expensive.

      We've spent lots of hours designing and building a reclamation system so that we can collect the stuff, one MOUSE lungful at a time, and pump it into cylinders which we'll ship back to the supplier for purification. Yes, the amount a MOUSE breathes in a study is expensive enough to justify reclamation.

      We're also working on xenon imaging, which does some things almost as well as 3He, and some things better. It's still hideously expensive, but at least you can get it from the atmosphere, instead of painstakingly milking it from aging thermonukes.

      • Rather than putting the 3He in the mouse, put the mouse in the 3He.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Alas, when you mix 3He with oxygen, it starts depolarizing, fast. We've got to mix it on the fly, right before it goes into the mouse. It's tricky, but we've gotten the hang of it. (Royal "we" here; I'm just a data plumber.)

      • by yurtinus (1590157) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:27PM (#30208648)
        Alright, well you clearly sound like you know what you're talking about on this subject, so perhaps you could answer a few questions that are likely weighing heavily on many of our minds:

        1 - If I were to suck on a baloon filled with 3He, what would be the resulting effect on the frequency response of my vocal chords?
        2 - Same question as above, but replace "I" and "my" with "Mickey Mouse"
        3 - If I were to breathe reclaimed Mickey Mouse 3He, would I gain supernatural powers and large ears?
        4 - Have all those years on the steamboat given Mickey Mouse emphysema and does he have long to live?


        Inquiring minds must know!
        • Helium 3 is chemically indistinguishable from helium. For nearly any example you can think of, the answer is going to be "same as helium". (except for nuclear properties)
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Obfuscant (592200)
            Helium 3 is chemically indistinguishable from helium.

            However, the effect on the vocal cords is not chemical, it is physical. Because He is less dense than air, the vocal cords can vibrate faster in it than in air.

            Since He3 is less dense than He4, the effect will be slightly increased.

        • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:28PM (#30209136)

          If I were to suck on a baloon filled with 3He, what would be the resulting effect on the frequency response of my vocal chords?

          Since it's about 25% less dense, it would make your voice go even higher than regular 4He. Especially if, right after you inhaled, we told you how much that lungful cost. (About $7k.)

          That's another way xenon is superior. It makes your voice go low, not high, as it's much denser than air -- and it gets you stoned, too.

          • by Shakrai (717556)

            Especially if, right after you inhaled, we told you how much that lungful cost. (About $7k.)

            Don't worry, I borrowed a page from 42's playbook and didn't inhale...... ;)

    • 0.4 Kevins (Score:5, Funny)

      by sexconker (1179573) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:48PM (#30208250)

      How do you get 0.4 Kevins? Is this some sort of midget? It's dangerously close to 0 Kevins.

      My home town nearly went to zero Kevins back in 1978.

      It was a particularly cold winter, and we were already down to 3 Kevins (due to their low popularity at the time).

      Kevin Thomas had flown out to be with his son's family for a wedding and got stuck in Boston for a whole week due to the weather. 2 Kevins left.

      Kevin Lemmer was rushed to the hospital during my shift. I still remember the call from the EMTs as the ambulance was rushing toward us. "It's Lemmer. He's in bad shape. Drove right into the fucking ditch." We called the time of death at 6:15 PM.

      At 6:16, all eyes turned to room 2217. Kevin Spencer was 82 and on his death bed with leukemia. His family being Catholic, he had already been given his last rights. If he couldn't hold out until Kevin Thomas returned, we would be at zero Kevins. Sure, we had 4 perfectly healthy Calvins, but they're just not the same.

      It was 7:15 when Carla Brooks and her husband James burst through the main entrance. "She's not due for 2 weeks!", James exclaimed. As the staff bustled around getting the Brookses settled, they exchanged darting glances with each other. This was their first child, and they wanted to keep the baby's sex a secret. Of course, in a small town, secrets don't get kept. Nearly all of the hospital staff new that the child about to rip open Mrs. Brooks was indeed a boy.

      The delivery was routine, and Kevin Brooks was born healthy, if a tad underweight, at 10:52 PM. Kevin Spencer was pronounced dead at 10:54.

      It was, as they say, a close one. Kevin Thomas arrived two days later, the weather having finally cleared up. To this day, we still rib him about it.

      Cedar Falls is currently at 5 Kevins.

  • by Zondar (32904) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:25PM (#30207974)

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.08/helium.html

  • Congress has mandated that, by 2012, all containers bound for the US be inspected overseas.

    It's a good thing that it is impossible to place a container on a non-commercial vessel. It is also good that it is impossible to NOT ship a weapon in a large cargo container.

    • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:28PM (#30208022) Homepage Journal

      Will they inspect all trucks entering the US from Canada and Mexico?

      • They'll probably try to slip through some legislation under the guise of doing exactly that to stop the "terrorists" then it'll be used to harass anyone trying to cross the border for whatever reason they can think of at the moment.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by gbutler69 (910166)
        Yes. That's the idea. These things can scan traffic for nuclear materials as you drive through at 30 mph.
        • When we first put the detectors in here, the Canadian couldn't get a trash truck across the boarder for two weeks because of the radiation picked up. Finally they had to steam clean the trash trailers to get them through.

    • This sounds like a huge fucking waste of time, and it won't be done seriously for more than the first 3 days or so. The amount of freight bound for the US has to be absolutely enormous.

    • inspected overseas

      Date of scan - 24 Nov 2009
      Results of scan - No radioactivity detected
      Operator - Osama

      impossible to NOT ship a weapon in a large cargo container.

      Definitely. I'd be more worried by the ones that arrive under their own power :)

  • I typed two posts prior to this one, and backspaced over both of them. The first was the thought that the machines were already there and this publicity was a rouse to try to catch trafficers. Then I realized I was just feeding the conspiricy side of my brain. I then typed up a joke about how I wasn't going to fall for their ploy to seize my precious nuclear product. I then decided better of that given I didn't relish the thought of MiB showing up at my front door based on some lame FBI web crawler hit
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by sexconker (1179573)

      Goin' great Last Available Usern.
      (Or should I say - "USAs all be an evil rat"?)

      Your weapon... fun-sized... shipment of ura... American candy... will be arriving shortly.

  • by wizardforce (1005805) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:33PM (#30208100) Journal

    I'm guessing there's also a shortage of Tritium which decays into Helium-3 with a half-life of 12 years. If you have enough Tritium around and wait long enough, you'll have fresh Helium-3. You can make more Tritium by exposing Lithium-6 to a high neutron flux like that found in nuclear reactors. The neutron splits the Li6 as LI6 + n => T + He4. Russia might have quite a bit of it laying around owing to the size of their nuclear arsenal that we could buy.

    • by IvyKing (732111)
      Another way to do this would be to use a D-D neutron source, in which you will get tritium from 6Li(n,alpha)T reaction, plus you will get get tritium and 3He from the D-D reactions.
      • That's fine for small scale operations but what you're essentially suggesting isn't feasible on the larger scale that He-3 production will need to be. We've got enough reactors that we get 20% of our power from them and there's tons of neutrons being emitted with nothing better to do than make TRitium for us.

  • I have programs that stall all the time. Just run it under a debugger and you'll see why almost immediately.

  • Umm, what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by syncrotic (828809) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:50PM (#30208268)

    There's seriously a program aimed at developing and deploying a fleet of nuclear bomb detectors at every port in the United States?

    What kind of ridiculous bullshit is this? Did someone at the DHS watch a few episodes of 24 to come up with this? It's movie-plot anti-terrorism at its absolute worst: imaging ridiculously specific scenarios and spending enormous amounts of money to guard against them.

    As if a terrorist organization resourceful enough to obtain a *nuclear fucking weapon* would somehow have difficulty bringing it into the country. This is a nation into which several metric tonnes of cocaine and thousands of illegal immigrants are successfully smuggled every year, and someone imagines that they'll be able to erect a perfect wall to keep a few kilograms of metal out of the country?

    What congressman's nephew is being paid to make these detectors?

    • Re:Umm, what? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by horza (87255) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:16PM (#30208540) Homepage

      Indeed. It's not as though US law enforcement aren't being given insufficient tools for the job. Detention without charge, torture, no access to legal council for suspects, abductions of suspects from any country, mass surveillance without oversight, biometric controls at airports... Shouldn't the wholesale abandonment of liberty have bought you a bit of safety?

      Phillip.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by DigiShaman (671371)

        It could be far far worse. These things could deployed in enough numbers to satisfy DHS, only to have a bomb still go off in the future.

        Two things will happen. The US will be locked up tighter than East Germany. Second, we will find ourselves in vigilant warfare conducted by our own citizens and ex-members of the armed forces. No nation on earth will stop the chaotic violence and bloodshed that will soon follow.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:55PM (#30209316)

        Actually it has.. major terrorist plots have been busted and prevented unneeded deaths because of these new tools.

        I, for one am glad these tools are at their disposal. Its kept us safe, and that's all I care about. Even the Messiah Obama hasn't rescinded any of them so he knows they are worth the price.

    • Re:Umm, what? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by sjames (1099) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:37PM (#30208748) Homepage

      Personal speedboat goes out a couple miles. Bomb is loaded onboard. Boat comes back in and is towed to the final destination hitched to an SUV. Just in case, also put a few kilos of cocaine onboard. That way if the police find it they'll take it to the impound yard in a populated area.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        god dammit, stop posting shit like this, terrorists read slashdot.

        • by sjames (1099)

          I saved all the good ideas. That was just the first thing off the top of my head. Anyone without a vested interest in the massive detector program would come up with it in an instant.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by nedlohs (1335013)

        Or just ship it in a commercial container and detonate the thing in the port of Los Angeles, it's not like it's remote.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Falconhell (1289630)

        Because it it totally impossible that a container could be added to a ship already at sea. I mean its not as if ships have cranes or anything.

    • by deuterium (96874)

      Politics. Some day, if something happens, someone might ask "why didn't we do this?" Fear of "common" sense.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      There's seriously a program aimed at developing and deploying a fleet of nuclear bomb detectors at every port in the United States?

      What kind of ridiculous bullshit is this? Did someone at the DHS watch a few episodes of 24 to come up with this? It's movie-plot anti-terrorism at its absolute worst: imaging ridiculously specific scenarios and spending enormous amounts of money to guard against them.

      As if a terrorist organization resourceful enough to obtain a *nuclear fucking weapon* would somehow have difficulty bringing it into the country. This is a nation into which several metric tonnes of cocaine and thousands of illegal immigrants are successfully smuggled every year, and someone imagines that they'll be able to erect a perfect wall to keep a few kilograms of metal out of the country?

      What congressman's nephew is being paid to make these detectors?

      Hey! I know you! You're the same guy who'll be bitching and screaming at the top of his lungs about how the government should have known a nuclear terrorist attack was in the works and how they should have done something to stop it.

  • by Goldsmith (561202) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:50PM (#30208276)

    It seems we know how to do just about anything these days, but lack the ability to actually get it done

  • Another Crisis? (Score:2, Insightful)

    Is there anything going on in the U.S. today that is NOT a "national crisis"? We need a break.
    • by Toonol (1057698)
      That's a consequence of an increasingly powerful and omnipresent central government. It makes "raising alarms" the most efficient way to get funding; far more efficient than civilized discussion or hard work. (It is also known as "begging for a handout".) It's infected industry, science, and personal finance.
    • WASHINGTON - Yet another national crisis shakes the American people as the White House announced that America is in dire need of a break from all those national crisises. "It's really getting to me," a visibly aggravated Barack Obama told the press, "first we have yet another terrorist warning, then we're out of nuclear weapons to build nuclear weapon detectors and just this morning I had three more peak oil predictions on my desk." Obama then curled up into a fetal position, rocking back and forth, mumblin
  • International Committee on Future Accelerators Beam Dynamics section newsletter abstract under the URL.

    While the emphasis in the six articles is on transmutation of nuclear waste and accelerator driven nuclear power plants, the same accelerators can generate neutrons to breed tritium from lithium. The fusion demonstration ITER will have blanket with lithium to demonstrate breeding since its fuel is a deuterium-tritium mixture.

    It would be lovely for the US accelerator community if the US DHS forked over $1.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by confused one (671304)
      Another method would be to fund a few prototype generation IV power plants. A gas-cooled fast reactor should fit the bill nicely.
  • large mass of plastic and scintillating material is all that's needed, someone is just making excuses

  • CANDU reactors (Score:5, Informative)

    by debrain (29228) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:08PM (#30208474) Journal

    A byproduct of CANDU [wikipedia.org] reactors is Helium-3.

    I'm not the first to note this, evidently [yahoo.com].

  • by travisco_nabisco (817002) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:23PM (#30208604)
    I probably stalled because it is near impossible to tell the difference between a smuggled nuclear bomb and a TSA approved nuclear bomb in check luggage.
  • Hey Wicked Cool! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by gbutler69 (910166)

    I just finished working on this project a year ago. I worked as a sub-contractor for Thermo-Fisher Scientific, one of the prime contractors, to DNDO, DHS, and CBP. It was an interesting project. My team was responsible for developing the command and control software for these systems. Had a lot of ups and downs. The technology works fairly well. We did A LOT of testing of the system in both laboratory and field conditions in order to validate the software. Got to travel to great and wonderous places like N

  • I have nothing more to add.
  • Regarding nuclear fusion. It is often said that Hydrogen fusion will produce Helium 4 which will then emit a neutron to become Helium 3 - some argument about the Helium 4 having too much energy to remain that way. To digress a bit - this was used as evidence against cold fusion (the neutrons should have killed them). So I looked it up and Helium 4 is far more abundant than 3 both on earth and apparently on the moon. As you can see by the abundance of kids balloons, we are not out of Helium 4 which is in muc
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Perhaps D + D -> He-3 + n. There is no He-4 intermediate (a misconception). It is impossible for He-4 to be formed as D + D -> He-4, as there is only one particle on the right and this would violate either conservation of energy or momentum. In the "too much energy" interpretation you cite, it means that the fusion reaction releases 10's of MeV of energy into the fusion products' kinetic energies, but there is only one product (He-4), and it is at rest in one inertial frame, so there is no kinetic ene

  • 'I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable,' says Representative Brad Miller, chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the problem.

    To some extent it wasn't foreseeable - this program is part of the fallout of 9/11. OTOH, we've had this program coming down the pike for years.

    In reality, the DoE has been asking for funding to expand tritium production (for a wide variety of uses) since the mid 90's (correctly foreseeing that there would be a sho

  • by deboli (199358) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:48PM (#30209264) Homepage

    You don't need to land the bomb to cause lots of damage. Anyone resourceful enough to get hold of a nuclear bomb will probably know about the detection system and the best risk avoidance is to detonate it before unloading. You could detonate it below the waterline (in the ship) or above ground (hoisted off deck by the port crane) to be as destructive as possible. No detection possible unless you scan cargo 20km offshore.

  • The reason Helium 3 is not being produced from Tritium is that storage and generation of tritium has been made politically impossible after a few accidents involving releases near the public. Oddly this doesn't seem to be mentioned on the wikipedia page [wikipedia.org]. But google finds some of the coverage like this from LBL [berkeleycitizen.org].
  • by mudshark (19714) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @03:27AM (#30210830)
    Back in the 1960s and 70s, a small factory made glow-in-the-dark clock and watch faces across the street from the bakery and kitchens for my school district. They used a paint which released tritium as it dried, and their fume hoods vented out the roof (why not? plenty of air circulation!) and the prevailing breezes carried a nice dose of alpha particles across the street on most days to settle out on the food that we were served. When somebody somewhere was tipped off that this arrangement may not have been completely kosher, some local muckrakers and a couple of curious scientists showed up with a Geiger counter. One dish in particular, sunshine cake, was damn hot and legend has it that the name alludes to its brightness....I blame all my societal maladjustment on this lapse in food safety.

    Kids, don't trust the food just because the lady with the hairnet says it's OK. Get it checked out by one of the guys in the hazmat suits.
  • by anorlunda (311253) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @09:01AM (#30212488) Homepage

    The NYT article says that the current demand for H3 is 65,000 liters per year. WTF!!!

    I can't believe that so much H3 is needed for new screening machines. It must be true that the machines are leaking the H3 or contaminating it and thus needing to replenish it all the time.

    If it were private industry rather than Homeland Security that wanted the screening function, the regulators would force them to refine the design until they need only one liter or less per machine, and then to protect the asset so that it never leaks or gets contaminated. One liter per ten years per screening machine sounds like a more reasonable quota.

    I attribute this crisis to the inability of government to regulate itself.

    By the way, I live on my sailboat and cruise internationally. I know that hundreds of thousands of recreational boats enter the USA every year. Every one of them is capable of carrying one or more nuclear warheads. Are these boats screened? No. In many cases they just call a 800 number to report their entry.

Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft ... and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor. -- Wernher von Braun

Working...