PDF _ R40154 - Detection of Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Science, Technologies, Observations
24-Feb-2009; Jonathan Medalia; 102 p.

Abstract: Detection of nuclear weapons and special nuclear material (SNM, certain types of uranium and plutonium) is crucial to thwarting nuclear proliferation and terrorism and to securing weapons and materials worldwide. Congress has funded a portfolio of detection R&D and acquisition programs, and has mandated inspection at foreign ports of all U.S.-bound cargo containers using two types of detection equipment.

Nuclear weapons contain SNM, which produces unique or suspect signatures that can be detected. It emits radiation, notably gamma rays (high-energy photons) and neutrons. SNM is very dense, so it produces a bright image on a radiograph (a picture like a medical x-ray) when xrays or gamma rays are beamed through a container in which it is hidden. Using lead or other shielding to attenuate gamma rays would make this image larger. Nuclear weapons produce detectable signatures, such as radiation generated by or a noticeable image on a radiograph. Other detection techniques are also available.

Nine technologies illustrate the detection portfolio: (1) A new scintillator material to improve detector performance and lower cost. (2) GADRAS, an algorithm to determine the materials in a container by analyzing gamma-ray spectra. If materials are the “eyes and ears” of detectors, algorithms are the “brains.” (3) A project to simulate large numbers of experiments in order to improve detection system performance. (4, 5) Two Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography Systems (CAARS) to detect high-density material based on the principle that it becomes less transparent to photons of higher energy, unlike other material. (6) A third CAARS to detect material with high atomic number (Z, number of protons in an atom’s nucleus) based on the principle that Z affects how material scatters photons. (7) A system to generate a 3-D image of the contents of a container based on the principle that Z and density strongly affect the degree to which muons (a type of subatomic particle) scatter. (8) Nuclear resonance fluorescence imaging to identify materials based on the spectrum of gamma rays a nucleus emits when struck by photons of a specific energy. (9) The Photonuclear Inspection and Threat Assessment System to detect SNM up to 1 km away, unlike other systems that operate at very close range. It would beam high-energy photons at distant targets to stimulate fission in SNM, producing characteristic signatures that may be detected.

This analysis leads to several observations for Congress. Some detection technology is advancing faster than many have expected. It is easier and less costly to accelerate a program in R&D than in production. “Concept of operations” is crucial to detection system effectiveness. Congress may wish to address gaps and synergisms in the technology portfolio. Congress need not depend solely on procedures developed by executive agencies to test detection technologies, but may specify tests an agency is to conduct. Ongoing improvement in detection capabilities produces uncertainties for terrorists that will increase over time, adding deterrence beyond that of the capabilities themselves.

This report will be updated occasionally. [read report]

Topics: Science & Technology

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