One of the greatest threats to the US homeland is the smuggling of nuclear and radiological material into the US. Relatively small amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium can be used to produce a weapon capable of widespread destruction, even with low technology levels. Developing technology for the detection of fissile material in order to prevent nuclear terrorism is incredibly important to US Homeland Security and will require a broad approach utilizing multiple different technologies.
Passive detection technologies have been widely deployed and are useful in a number of settings. However, their efficacy in detecting shielded fissile material is limited because many important isotopes are weakly radioactive and relatively easy to shield. Active neutron interrogation has been
demonstrated as an effective technique for detecting shielded SNM, but previously available neutron sources have been too weak for high volume cargo screening in practical time periods.
Phoenix Nuclear Labs has developed a neutron generator that is orders of magnitude stronger than previously available technologies; neutron yields up to 3×1011 DD n/s have been measured in the PNL lab. PNL’s source makes it possible to detect shielded SNM with greatly increased speed and sensitivity.
Fissile materials emit intense bursts of neutrons and gamma rays when bombarded with neutrons. These particles can then be detected to signal the presence of radioactive material. It is possible to utilize PNL’s very strong neutron source to rapidly detect SNM at ports and border crossings.
PNL’s neutron source strength has reached a level where active interrogation for SNM has become logistically possible without disrupting throughput. Modifications have been made to PNL’s core neutron generator technology to allow for pulsed operation and to fit it into a more compact form factor. This technology has the potential to fill deficiencies in existing screening technologies employed by CBP and to potentially prevent a radiological disaster in our homeland.