LIVERMORE, Calif. — In the future, customs agents, police and other workers could carry cell phones that double as radiation detectors and serve as part of a vast, nationwide detection network.
This device and more than a dozen other advanced technologies to detect clandestine nuclear materials or nuclear devices are under development at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
A new Center of Excellence, known as the Radiation Detection Center, or RDC, has been formed at the Laboratory to help initiate creative solutions to the nation’s needs, including countering nuclear terrorism.
The RDC was formally opened today in a ribbon-cutting ceremony that was attended by Rep. Ellen Tauscher; George Vinson, director of California’s Office of Homeland Security; and Laboratory Director Michael Anastasio
“Historically, Lawrence Livermore has had a great deal of expertise in radiation detection,” said RDC Director Simon Labov. “What the center does is leverage our past work to help meet today’s security needs, including the detection, identification and analysis of nuclear materials and nuclear devices.”
“In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, we were able to help various federal agencies because we offered a coordinated and easy way to access the Laboratory’s radiation detection capabilities,” Labov said.
Jeff Richardson of the Laboratory's Nonproliferation, Arms Control and International Security (NAI) directorate, noted: “Even though the RDC was unofficially started prior to Sept. 11, this center is exactly what the Laboratory and the nation need as part of their response to the threat posed by terrorism.”
Greater sensitivity in detection is probably the most critical factor for finding nuclear materials, Labov believes.
“Nuclear materials are radioactive and give off emissions that can be detected. Unfortunately, the emissions are very weak and can sometimes be shielded. Thus, sensitivity is everything, and that’s what we’re trying to improve.”
Some examples of projects under way by Laboratory scientists associated with the RDC are:
• RadNet, A Cellular Telephone-Based Radiation Detector Network : Under development for six months, RadNet is based on small detector units that will feature the capabilities of a cell phone, radiation sensor, Personal Digital Assistant, Internet access and a Global Positioning System locator.
The RadNet units would be deployed as part of a wide network that would report and transmit data about the possible location of clandestine nuclear materials or devices.
“In effect, all of the phones operating at any time are part of one large detector that is
spread out throughout an entire geographic area,” Labov explained.
Along with being lightweight and able to operate at low power, each unit would have sufficient energy resolution to distinguish between different types of radioactive materials, such as medical isotopes, industrial sources or “dirty bomb” materials.
“This is a device that people will use because people want other capabilities, like cell phones,” Labov said. “They’ll take care of them and they’ll keep the batteries charged.”
In addition to use by police and customs agents, the cell phone radiation detectors could be deployed with firefighters, utility workers, hazmat teams and others.
Prototypes of the device are expected to be ready in a few months.
• Ultra-Spec, the Ultra-High Resolution Gamma Ray Spectrometer: Ultra-Spec uses very low temperatures to measure gamma rays from nuclear materials with high precision.
Operating within one degree of absolute zero (or –459 degrees Fahrenheit), the instrument records the change in temperature, or warming, when a single gamma ray hits the detector’s superconducting material, usually tin.
The temperature increase, caused by one gamma ray, is measured precisely within 1/10 of a percent.
People using Ultra-Spec will be able to achieve a fivefold increase in spectral resolution, or the ability to isolate emissions from different types of radioactive materials, allowing easier identification of the exact composition of radioactive materials.
The first prototype of this detector has already been produced.
• Gamma Ray Imaging Spectrometer : Part of a family of technologies, this detector is one of five gamma ray imaging systems under development by Laboratory researchers. Each of the five gamma ray imaging detectors has different capabilities for a variety of applications.
The Gamma Ray Imaging Spectrometer permits pictures to be taken of radioactivity emissions in large areas. The spectrometer first shows the presence and then the location of radioactive materials.
“Recent advances in microelectronics allow us to build a gamma ray camera that consists of many gamma ray sensors all working together to take a picture like a digital camera for gamma rays,” Labov said.
It is believed that this technology will provide a tenfold increase in sensitivity for detecting nuclear materials or devices, according to Labov. About the size of a large-screen television, a system designed to search for nuclear weapons or nuclear materials should be ready in about one year.
Initial development of the instrument was started for arms control efforts to check the location of nuclear warheads in missiles in a nonintrusive manner.
Although the primary application of radiation detection technologies under development at the Laboratory is for locating nuclear materials, the instruments will also find use in other scientific fields. Other applications, said Labov, include arms control verification, use in diagnostics for the National Ignition Facility laser, environmental monitoring, astrophysics and the search for dark matter.
Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national security laboratory, with a mission to ensure national security and apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
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