Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Generation of Weapons Detectors Short-Stops Terrorism

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Generation of Weapons Detectors Short-Stops Terrorism

Article excerpt

The biggest physical threat to the world today isn't the big stuff - a nuclear strike or world war - as much as the hard-to-detect activities of terrorists and rogue nations. To guard against them, the world needs new technologies to track them. So America's national labs, which did so much to help track the Soviet Union's massive weapons production, are now miniaturizing their detection systems to deal with a changed world.

Iraq is one example of what America's post-cold-war scientists are up against. After losing its war against the West in the early 1990s, Iraq was forced to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection teams. The teams wanted to find out if the nation's nuclear program involved nuclear weapons. But when they found suspicious materials, they often had to be shipped out of the country and tested - a process that took several weeks.

In response, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico built a 100-pound detection unit that fits in a suitcase. Using a highly reactive chemical on a small amount of uranium, it allows a sample to be fed into a small detection device called a mass spectrometer. The mass spectrometer can pick out the highly enriched variety of uranium that would be used in bombmaking. Instead of weeks of waiting, an inspection team equipped with the unit could have its results in half an hour.

Gamma rays are another telltale sign of nuclear activity. Scientists at Los Alamos are working on a portable detector, called a cadmium-zinc-telluride detector, that works at room temperatures. It's not as good as other detectors, but those require special liquid-nitrogen cooling that makes them harder to handle in the field. The real breakthrough, though, has come in shrinking the size of the analyzer connected to the detector.

Formerly the size of a desktop computer, it now can be worn on a belt, says Victor Gavron, who heads the lab's Safeguards Science and Technology Group. …

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