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Program To Detect Smuggled Nuclear Bombs Stalls 224

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."
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Program To Detect Smuggled Nuclear Bombs Stalls

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

  • 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.

  • 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. []

    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.
  • by sexconker ( 1179573 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:53PM (#30208300)

    Dogs are better at finding drugs than any scanner is at finding nuclear material.

    Less expensive too.
    Less training involved, too.
    Less maintenance, too.
    Cuter, too.

    The war on drugs isn't meant to be "won", it is meant to be perpetually exacerbated to ensure the continued employment and empowerment of those waging it.

  • 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.

  • CANDU reactors (Score:5, Informative)

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

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

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

  • Use BF3 (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:29PM (#30208662)

    Just get the bloody shipping regs to recognize that a wee bit of BF3 in a radiation detector is not a major hazmat issue. BF3 tubes tended to be the norm for neutron detectors until a change in the HAZMAT regs a few years ago... The regs just need to be amended to include an excepted quantity rule for BF3 in a rad detector. Problem solved.

  • by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:23PM (#30209100)
    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 cusco ( 717999 ) <> on Monday November 23, 2009 @10:11PM (#30209424)
    Pretty much anyone who knows the state of the former Soviet stockpile. Victor Bout at one point was said to have one for sale for $40 million. No one is sure where it went, but since Valerie Plame and Brewster Jennings hadn't yet been exposed it likely ended up in the US stockpile.
  • by forand ( 530402 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @10:59PM (#30209708) Homepage
    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 []. But google finds some of the coverage like this from LBL [].
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 23, 2009 @11:07PM (#30209746)

    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 energy - a contradiction. So the reaction is not possible.

    (It is also relevant that nuclei have very limited internal structure, so it is not feasible for this extra energy to go into sub-nuclear motion. If you throw a macroscopic object into a wall, and it stops, conservation of energy is not violated, because it goes into other degrees of freedom (the movement of constituent atoms, that is heat). This does not work with nuclei, hence the counter-intuitive physics.)

    He-4 and He-3 are both stable. He-4 does not decay into He-3.

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