Possibly the hardest problem in homeland security is detecting the presence of radioactive material — the essential component in a nuclear device — hidden in a vehicle, train car, cargo container, ship or airplane. The problem is even more challenging if the material is shielded or hidden amidst a cargo of naturally radiating material such as kitty litter. Scientists have been working on the nuclear material detection problem for decades with only limited success. The current generation of passive detectors is extremely short range and active detectors require large amounts of power. Neither kind does very well in finding shielded materials.
A breakthrough in nuclear material detection technology is in the offing. The Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS) has the potential to solve the challenge of finding shielded nuclear material and to do so in a manner that is fast, relatively cheap, extremely accurate and easy to operate. The MMPDS uses the universe’s constant background of naturally occurring cosmic radiation in the form of high energy particles as its source. For you Big Bang Theory aficionados, the primary particle employed is the muon. The system also exploits gamma rays as a second source.
The vehicle or container carrying the nuclear material passes between two detector arrays which measure the change in the path of the muons. Denser materials cause greater changes in the paths compared to less dense materials. The MMPDS can identify the location of nuclear material within a lead and steel shielded container placed in a cargo bin with other naturally radiating materials.
The MMPDS can be deployed at ports, border crossings, package sorting centers and airfields. This technology has tremendous applications in combating nuclear proliferation and arms control verification. Because it is entirely passive, the MMPDS is relatively cheap to build and operate.
What makes the MMPDS all the more impressive is that it was developed virtually without government money. Venture capital provided all the funds and most of the intellectual property (IP) was privately developed. The company behind MMPDS, Decision Sciences International Corporation, did some collaborative work with the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the two share some of the IP.
The MMPDS has successfully completed its initial testing. The first system is being deployed at the port of Nassau in the Bahamas as a demonstration. The Department of Homeland Security, specifically Customs and Border Patrol, and the Department of Defense need to look into this revolutionary capability.
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