Pentagon Funds Development of New Tech for Detecting ‘Dirty Bombs’

Nassau and Suffolk county law enforcement officers peer inside the trailer of a prototype nuclear-detection sensor during a 2011 Homeland Security Department test in New York. The Pentagon is funding research into a next-generation detection system that would not rely on helium 3, which is in dwindling supply.
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Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
June 3, 2014, 9:46 a.m.

With its sup­ply of he­li­um run­ning out, the Pentagon is fund­ing re­search in­to al­tern­at­ive meth­ods for de­tect­ing the pres­ence of pos­sible “dirty bombs.”

He­li­um 3 gas is em­ployed in most of the nuc­le­ar-de­tec­tion sys­tems in use today. The rare sub­stance is cur­rently pro­duced as a byproduct of the ra­dio­act­ive de­cay of tri­ti­um, a ma­ter­i­al used in nuc­le­ar war­heads. As he­li­um 3 is col­lec­ted from aging war­heads, the sup­ply of the gas has dwindled as the U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al has grown smal­ler.

That has promp­ted the Pentagon’s De­fense Threat Re­duc­tion Agency to seek out prom­ising new tech­no­lo­gies that can sup­plant the use of he­li­um 3 in de­tec­tion devices, which are used to find ra­di­olo­gic­al sub­stances. Of­fi­cials fear that at­tack­ers could pair these sub­stances with con­ven­tion­al ex­plos­ives to dis­perse harm­ful ra­di­ation across a wide area.

To that end, the agency has awar­ded a $2.8 mil­lion con­tract to Alion Sci­ence and Tech­no­logy of McLean, Va., to fur­ther its re­search in­to a next-gen­er­a­tion de­tec­tion sys­tem that util­izes bundles of thin cop­per tubes coated with boron, ac­cord­ing to a Monday com­pany press re­lease.

The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of he­li­um 3-powered de­tect­ors can alert au­thor­it­ies to the pres­ence of a nearby ra­dio­act­ive source, but these sys­tems can­not de­term­ine the dir­ec­tion from which the ra­di­ation is com­ing. Alion plans to use its Pentagon fund­ing to give its boron-coated “straw” sensors the abil­ity to pin­point the dir­ec­tion of a source.

“By re­search­ing the means to make the boron-coated straw de­tect­or more pre­cise and more reas­on­able to pro­duce, Alion can help [the De­fense Threat Re­duc­tion Agency] em­ploy im­proved tech­no­lo­gies to mit­ig­ate threats ef­fect­ively and keep warfight­ers and cit­izens safe,” com­pany seni­or vice pres­id­ent Terri Spoon­hour said in a re­leased state­ment. “But, bey­ond provid­ing a drop-in re­place­ment for He-3 de­tect­or com­pon­ents, this en­gin­eer­ing ef­fort opens up a num­ber of pos­sib­il­it­ies for new or en­hanced port­able sys­tems that can be car­ried in­to ques­tion­able areas or per­man­ently in­stalled to pro­tect ports and de­pots.”

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