New business opportunities in radiation detection technologies

Published 19 October 2006

The North Korea nuclear test, and the inexorable march of Iran toward acquiring nuclear weapons, increase the risks of nuclear weapon proliferation; there are thus many opportunities in developing new radiation detection technologies

Crises create opportunities, and the growing risk of nuclear weapons proliferation is no exception. The risks increase by the day as North Korea develops its nuclear arsenal and as Iran is continuing undeterred its own march toward nuclear weapons. Indeed, in the wake of last week’s North Korean nuclear test, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on North Korea’s neighbors to employ a more robust radiation detector system in order to thwart any effort by the isolated regime to export its nuclear technology. Trouble is, the current generation of detectors may not do a very good job of it.

Most radiation detectors today rely on solid crystals of sodium iodide. These crystals light up when they are hit with gamma rays — but sodium-based sensors cannot distinguish between a plutonium bomb and the radioactive potassium-40 found in bananas. As importantly, these sensors fail to detect highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is more readily obtainable, and hence more dangerous, than plutonium. In addition, plutonium emits high-energy gamma rays which are very difficult to shield, but HEU emits only low-energy gamma rays which may be shielded relatively easily with a thin layer of lead. Radiation detection which uses germanium instead of sodium iodide, or which relies on active detection technologies which bombard the cargo container with high-energy particles, thus creating new signatures which are easier to detect, can do the trick. The trouble: These better detectors cost up to seven times more than sodium-based detectors.

-read more about the limits of sodium-based radiation detectors in Celeste Biever’s New Scientist report; see Christian Beckner’s HLS Watch discussion [] of the advantages of germanium-based detection; and see this defensetech story [