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Security United States Science

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

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

  • by jfb2252 ( 1172123 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @07:59PM (#30208376)

    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 $1.5B for a system to breed tritium and, in its spare time, transmute long lived waste isotopes so used fuel rods would decay to radiation levels below that of natural uranium ore within one thousand instead of one hundred thousand years. []

    The theme is "Accelerator Driven Sub-Critical Assemblies (ADS) and its challenge to accelerators." This is a topic that could have a deep impact on the future of our society. As we all know, developing clean energy and protecting the environment are two top priorities in countries around the world. ADS is an accelerator-based technology that may provide a viable solution to these major problems. Jiuqing collected 6 excellent articles in the theme section. They give a comprehensive review of this important accelerator field, including valuable lessons learned from the past.

  • by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @08:18PM (#30208558) Journal

    Apparently it is, if you're in the military and the "things" you are speaking out against are the United States and/or its armed forces. Uniform Code of Military Justice, article 134: "GENERAL ARTICLE: Though not specifically mentioned in this chapter, all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital, of which persons subject to this chapter may be guilty, shall be taken cognizance of by a general, special , or summary court-martial, according to the nature and degree of the offense, and shall be punished at the discretion of that court." []

    Admittedly that's the final "catch all" article intended to close the loopholes above. Still, by the letter of the law...

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

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

    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:Umm, what? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:11PM (#30209024)

    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.

  • Hey Wicked Cool! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by gbutler69 ( 910166 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:17PM (#30209064) Homepage

    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 Nevada Test Site, Southampton, UK, and Antwerp, Belgium. Who'd a thought something like this would put a monkey in the works?

    Funny anecdote: When we installed the system in Southampton, UK, the British and Eurpoean Union representatives were most interest in if it could detect "Cigarettes"? Man, they wanna make sure they collect that tax on your smokes!

  • by jeffb (2.718) ( 1189693 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:23PM (#30209098)

    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.)

  • Re:Umm, what? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DigiShaman ( 671371 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @09:49PM (#30209274) Homepage

    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 @11:25PM (#30209824)


    We're not out of He3, not even close, and you can buy a He3 detector if you can afford it. I just did, and I'm neither a government guy, or in some eyes, a legit scientist (my degree is elsewhere). But I do nuclear fusion (D-D) research here on my own time and money (programming made me well off) and needed some good detectors for my work, called up LND, and no problem - they are expensive to be sure, but not unavailable, not hardly, they really wanted a sale. And more He3 can be made, just like the stuff we had was "made", primarily. You can thank a recent administration for releasing zillions of tons of our strategic reserve of He (some of which was recoverable He3) because they didn't want to pay the rent on the salt domes it was stuffed under. Thanks George. Was it somehow affecting your profit kickbacks from wanna be oil wells in the same area of Texas?

    But more is coming out of just about every gas or oil well all the time -- you just have to decide it's worth saving (and pay the money to separate it from all the other junk, but it's an easier separation than for heavier elements). A He3 detector doesn't need all that much. A really good one might be a 1" diameter tube a couple feet long stuffed with 10 atmospheres worth, but it takes quite a lot less than that to make a decent detector. That one, I bought, it cost about 2.5k$. They go down in price and sensitivity to about $700 (it's kind of a limited competition market, they get $700 for sneezing in your general direction and $100 for a line cord) and up to the sky for really large ones, which are really just a lot of little ones stuffed into the same moderator.

    No you can't just use more other kinds of detectors to get the same sensitivity. There are only so many neutrons coming out of the source, and the other types have far lower quantum efficiency re detection, but once you're got a moderator, the ones that don't "hit" a detector are more or less lost, no second chance, maybe, certainly no third.

    The B10 class detectors (B10 lined tubes or BF3 gas geigers) are only sensitive to slow neutrons, just like He3, but far less quantum efficient (and He3 ain't that great). You can't just stuff them all over the place and not have a moderator to up sensitivity beyond a point.
    And -- they also see gamma rays etc, and produce one heck of a background count on things like cosmic rays and kitty litter (which does not give off neutrons, very few things do in fact).

    To discriminate against the increased background count of the Boron types, you need to count longer -- much longer.
    (See statistics 101, it's kind of depressing when the counts are about the same as background --)

    There are other neutron detectors, scintillator plastics that are large area and can see recoil protons from collisions with fast neutrons, and an interesting design called a Hornyak detector, some of which I've made myself. Not in the same class, and see "background". I doubt we want to push screened things into underground mines to kill off the cosmic background.
    Which isn't even the only one, there's still that kitty litter. That's what they make gamma ray spectrometers for, by the way, and we're not close to running out of the stuff to make them out of, any of the several technologies that can be used, depending on the resolution you need. And, oh, gammas are what mostly come out of weapons fuel, along with alphas that are easy to shield against, a piece of paper stops them. And oh yes, daughter products -- radon and so on that are more or less impossible to stop leaking out. The sad thing is, a nuke just doesn't make that much noise about itself until bang time.

    Would you like to wait essentially forever if each screen took an hour, and there were 10,000 things an hour needing it?
    At every port of entry? It adds up fast.

    Not that this is really needed for the DHS job, they just like to have the nicest and best of everything *your* money can buy them, to cover their butts. Now that

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 24, 2009 @04:57AM (#30211104)
    Google "Emma Maersk"
    Happy geek wet tech dreams

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas