Cosmic Particles Could Detect Nuke Materials, Scientists Say

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"It sounds plausible enough to me," said Allison, who added that he would hold his final judgment until he got to physically test the technology.

Drive-Through Detection?

The LANL researchers have only completed the initial science for the muon machine and do not yet know what the best application for their technology will be. "The project is in the baby stages," said Priedhorsky. "We have done a little science and none of the engineering."

Funding for the project is currently coming from various parts of the government concerned with national security technology. If fully funded, Priedhorsky believes that the LANL team could produce a full scale system within two years.

Built for national security purposes, Borozdin envisions the system resembling a drive-through garage or a car wash. A car or truck would drive into the structure and stop for a minute or two while muons beamed down from outer space are tracked as they pass through the vehicle.

"During that time, if you have high density material inside the car it could be detected," said Borozdin.

One of the limitations of such a system, said Priedhorsky, is that it does take a few minutes to process an image, rendering the muon machine impractical for use as the primary screening technology at places such as airports where thousands of people and their luggage must be checked each day.

However, unlike a conventional x-ray machine, Priedhorsky says the muon machine introduces no additional radiation and muons are freely available. "Muons are there all the time," he said. "I can take a picture of the inside of something and not give it any radiation."

Thomas Cochran, a senior scientist and nuclear weapons expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., said that it is extremely difficult to detect nuclear materials, especially if the person smuggling them has some knowledge of radiation and shielding techniques. While a muon machine may be an improvement, he suspects sophisticated smugglers could still get around such an apparatus.

"It is useful to have capability at borders to catch unsophisticated smuggling, but I don't think you will catch the sophisticated folk," he said. "The primary focus of the government needs to be on locking the material up at its source and getting out of commercial use of weapons-useable material globally."

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