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Detection of Nuclear Weapons and Materials. Science, Technologies, Observations

Detection of Nuclear Weapons and Materials. Science, Technologies, Observations

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CRS Report for Congress
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
Detection of Nuclear Weapons and Materials:Science, Technologies, Observations
Jonathan Medalia
Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy June 4, 2010
Congressional Research Service
7-5700www.crs.govR40154
 
Detection of Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Science, Technologies, ObservationsCongressional Research Service
Summary
Detection of nuclear weapons and special nuclear material (SNM, plutonium, and certain types of uranium) is crucial to thwarting nuclear proliferation and terrorism and to securing weapons andmaterials worldwide. Congress has funded a portfolio of detection R&D and acquisitionprograms, and has mandated inspection at foreign ports of all U.S.-bound cargo containers usingtwo types of detection equipment.Nuclear weapons contain SNM, which produces suspect signatures that can be detected. It emitsradiation, notably gamma rays (high-energy photons) and neutrons. SNM is dense, so it producesa bright image on a radiograph (a picture like a medical x-ray) when x-rays or gamma rays arebeamed through a container in which it is hidden. Using lead or other shielding to attenuategamma rays would make that image larger. Nuclear weapons produce detectable signatures, suchas radiation 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 improvedetector performance and lower cost. This project was terminated in January 2010. (2) GADRAS,an application using multiple algorithms to determine the materials in a container by analyzinggamma-ray spectra. If materials are the “eyes and ears” of detectors, algorithms are the “brains.”(3) A project to simulate large numbers of experiments to improve detection system performance.(4, 5) Two Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography Systems (CAARS) to detect high-densitymaterial 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, numberof protons in an atom’s nucleus) based on the principle that Z affects how material scattersphotons. This project was terminated in March 2009. (7) A system to generate a 3-D image of thecontents of a container based on the principle that Z and density strongly affect the degree towhich muons (a subatomic particle) scatter. (8) Nuclear resonance fluorescence imaging toidentify materials based on the spectrum of gamma rays a nucleus emits when struck by photonsof a specific energy. (9) The Photonuclear Inspection and Threat Assessment System to detectSNM 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 signaturesthat may be detected. These technologies are selected not because they are necessarily the “best”in their categories, but rather to show a variety of approaches, in differing stages of maturity,performed by different types of organizations, relying on different physical principles, andcovering building blocks (materials, algorithms, models) as well as systems, so as to conveymany points on the spectrum of detection technology development.This analysis leads to several observations for Congress. It is difficult to predict the schedule orcapabilities of new detection technologies. It is easier and less costly to accelerate a program inR&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 neednot 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 capabilitiesproduces uncertainties for terrorists that will increase over time, adding deterrence beyond that of the capabilities themselves.This report will be updated occasionally.
 
Detection of Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Science, Technologies, ObservationsCongressional Research Service
Contents
Chapter 1. Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Signatures and Detection.........................................2
 
What Is to Be Detected?........................................................................................................2
 
Photons 101....................................................................................................................2
 
What signatures show the presence of nuclear weapons and SNM?.................................3
 
Opacity to photons..........................................................................................................3
 
How Does Detection Work?..................................................................................................5
 
How are signatures gathered, processed, and used?..........................................................5
 
Principles of detection.....................................................................................................6
 
Means of detection........................................................................................................10
 
Evasion of detection technologies.................................................................................12
 
Current Detection Technologies..........................................................................................13
 
Radiation “pagers”........................................................................................................13
 
Radiation portal monitors..............................................................................................13
 
Radioactive isotope identification devices.....................................................................13
 
Radiographic imaging systems......................................................................................13
 
Chapter 2. Advanced Technologies............................................................................................13
 
Nanocomposite Scintillators................................................................................................15
 
The problem..................................................................................................................15
 
Background..................................................................................................................15
 
Technology description.................................................................................................16
 
Potential advantages......................................................................................................16
 
Status, schedule, and funding........................................................................................17
 
Risks and concerns........................................................................................................17
 
Potential gains by increased funding..............................................................................18
 
Potential synergisms and related applications................................................................19
 
GADRAS: A Gamma-Ray Spectrum Analysis Application Using Multiple Algorithms........19
 
The problem..................................................................................................................19
 
Background..................................................................................................................19
 
Technology description.................................................................................................20
 
Potential advantages......................................................................................................22
 
Status, schedule, and funding........................................................................................22
 
Risks and concerns........................................................................................................23
 
Potential gains by increased funding..............................................................................24
 
Potential synergisms and related applications................................................................24
 
Computer Modeling to Evaluate Detection Capability.........................................................24
 
The problem..................................................................................................................24
 
Background..................................................................................................................25
 
Technology description.................................................................................................27
 
Potential advantages......................................................................................................28
 
Status, schedule, and funding........................................................................................29
 
Risks and concerns........................................................................................................29
 
Potential gains by increased funding..............................................................................31
 
Potential synergisms and related applications................................................................31
 
L-3 CAARS: A Low-Risk Dual-Energy Radiography System..............................................31
 
The problem..................................................................................................................31
 
Background..................................................................................................................32
 
Technology description.................................................................................................35
 

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