LIVERMORE--Commercial instruments have been tested and new technologies are under development by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers to detect nuclear materials inside cargo containers.
The work, funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration, is designed to help prevent the smuggling of nuclear materials inside the millions of cargo containers that annually enter the United States.
During three weeks in June, Livermore researchers tested 19 commercially available handheld instruments that are being used or might be used by various government agencies to detect nuclear materials.
“Our aim is to evaluate the various types of equipment that could be used for monitoring air, ocean and intermodal cargo containers for nuclear materials,” said Bill Dunlop, leader of the Lab’s Proliferation Prevention and Arms Control Program. (Intermodal cargo containers are containers that can travel by ship, rail and truck.)
Among the participants in the evaluation project were personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Information about the performance and capabilities of the detection instruments for seeking out nuclear materials will be furnished to different government agencies.
“One of our areas of expertise is understanding what goes into a nuclear weapon, so we know how to test equipment to find the materials for which we’re searching,” Dunlop said.
Lawrence Livermore researchers have experience in designing and testing nuclear weapons and have assessed possible improvised nuclear devices as part of the Laboratory’s nonproliferation programs, according to Dunlop. These capabilities are bolstered by the Laboratory’s expertise in trace element detection.
The work by Laboratory researchers to evaluate radiation detection instruments is being performed as part of a request to the NNSA.
As part of the larger NNSA project, Livermore and other researchers will also develop new and enhanced detection systems, and will train personnel in the use of detection technology.
During tests of the radiation detection instruments, Lab researchers placed small amounts of nuclear materials amidst other goods that might be shipped inside cargo containers.
Among the radiation sources used in the testing were plutonium, enriched uranium, cesium 137, barium 133, phosphorus 32 and combinations of these sources.
Part of the research still to be performed will include a system study to determine the best locations to place radiation detection instrumentation, Dunlop said.
One of the new radiation detection instruments on the way was developed -- and announced earlier this year -- by researchers from LLNL and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Their instrument, called the Cryo3, is a mobile, handheld mechanically cooled germanium radiation spectrometer that detects gamma-rays from radioactive materials.
Previously, high-resolution germanium detectors had to be cooled using liquid nitrogen. The Cryo3, however, is cooled mechanically by a low-power, compact micro cryocooler, attaining the desired high energy resolution without the need for liquid nitrogen.
In a new project started in May, a multi-disciplinary team of Livermore researchers is looking at ways to “actively interrogate” materials inside cargo containers to evaluate the materials, Dunlop said.
“We are studying the use of neutrons to impinge on the cargo containers and look for key signatures as a result of the neutrons interacting with nuclear and/or chemical materials inside the container,” Dunlop said.
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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