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.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.”

What We're Following See More »
Congressional Budget Office Scores House Trumpcare Bill
49 minutes ago

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has released its score of the House-passed American Health Care Act, which would replace Obamacare. According to the CBO, the bill would reduce the deficit by $119 billion by 2026, while leaving 14 million more Americans uninsured in 2018 than under current law, a number swelling to 23 million by 2026. Further, insurance premiums would balloon 20 percent in 2018 and five percent in 2019 before the waiver provision in the legislation would kick in. The provision allows states to apply for waivers and permit insurers to offer skimpier plans, which would likely entice younger and healthier individuals to buy health insurance while potentially pricing older and less healthy Americans out of insurance plans. House Republicans approved this bill in late April without waiting for the CBO score.

Mnuchin Looks To Avoid Debt Ceiling Fight
2 hours ago
Graham Rejects Trump’s Budget In Hearing
2 hours ago

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing that President Donald Trump's budget is literal more than recycling bin material. "The budget proposed by the president doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of passing," Graham said. Graham had previously opposed the budget over its nearly 30 percent cut to the budget of the State Department. The budget slashes spending on domestic priorities while increasing military spending.

McConnell Not Sure How To Get 50 Votes For Health Care
2 hours ago

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that he doesn't yet know the formula towards gaining passage of an Obamacare replacement in the Senate. "I don't know how we get to 50 (votes) at the moment. But that's the goal," McConnell said. The House passed an Obamacare replacement bill which has been widely seen as dead on arrival in the Senate, and McConnell has put together a working group of Republican Senators working towards creating health care legislation which could gain the support of at least 50 Senators.

Transcript Of Trump, Duterte Phone Call Leaks
7 hours ago

The transcript of a phone call between Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was leaked and it shows Trump referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as a "madman with nuclear weapons" and praising Duterte, saying he was doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem." For context, Duterte has presided over a vicious and genocidal campaign of extrajudicial killings within his country which has led to the murder of thousands of expected drug dealers and users. Trump also told Duerte to take care of himself and promised that the U.S. would "take care of North Korea."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.