Researchers propose a new way to scan cargo containers

Published 28 January 2010

In 2007 the U.S. government set itself the goal of screening all aviation cargo loaded onto passenger planes and all maritime cargo entering the country for both explosives and nuclear materials; this is an ambitious goal: there are more than ten millions containers entering the United States every year through sea ports and land border crossings, and there are more than 28,000 commercial flights

Can a single machine solve the complex problem of scanning cargo containers for conventional and nuclear weapons? In 2007 the U.S. government set itself the goal of screening all aviation cargo loaded onto passenger planes and all maritime cargo entering the country for both explosives and nuclear materials. And to set up a system to do this within five years.

This is a big ask given that the maritime traffic alone amounts to more than six million cargo containers per year — and this is before you get to the sheer technical difficulty of reliably spotting every kind of explosive along with all nuclear materials with a minimal percentage of false positives.

Technology Review reports that Mark Goldberg at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center in Israel and a number of colleagues, mainly in Germany, outline plans for a single machine that they say could do the job.

The team propose using a particle accelerator alternately to smash ionized hydrogen molecules and deuterium ions into targets of carbon and boron respectively. The collisions produce beams of gamma rays of various energies as well as neutrons. These beams are then passed through the cargo.

By measuring the way the beams are absorbed, Goldberg and his colleagues say they can work out whether the cargo contains explosives or nuclear materials. They say they can do it at the rate of twenty containers per hour.

Technology Review notes that this is an ambitious goal that presents numerous challenges. For example, the beam currents will provide relatively sparse data so the team will have to employ a technique called few-view tomography to fill in the gaps. It will also mean that each container will have to be zapped several times. That may not be entirely desirable for certain types of goods such as food and equipment with delicate electronics. Just how beams of gamma rays and neutrons affect these kinds of goods is something that will have to be determined.

Then there is the question of false positives. One advantage of a machine like this is that it has several scanning modes is that if one reveals something suspicious, it can switch to another to look in more detail. That should build up a decent picture of the cargo’s contents and reduce false positives.

Some compromises will have to be accepted, though. For example, the machine will be able reliably to distinguish uranium and plutonium from certain heavy metals such as lead and mercury — but not from others such as tungsten or gold. Goldberg and his team say this is a reasonable trade off since it would be in customs’ interests to detect these metals if they had been undeclared.

Finally, there is the issue of reliability and maintenance. This is not a simple device. Until now, particle accelerators have only been operated reliably in a few laboratories with highly trained staff. Making such a device reliable enough to operate in a real world environment may be the most difficult task of all.

Provided that the U.S. government is willing to pay, of course. The U.S. has more than 300 ports and 5,119 paved airports. Suppose it orders 1,000 of these machines at $5 million each (a highly conservative estimate), that comes to a total of $5 billion. This is before operating costs come into play.

One thing is for sure: even if the U.S. government decides that this is the machine for the task, Goldberg and his colleagues have yet to build one. The paper they published two weeks ago outlines the plan. That makes the 2012 deadline almost impossible to meet.

-read more in M. B. Goldberg et al., “A Dual-Purpose Ion-Accelerator for Nuclear-Reaction-Based Explosives-and SNM-Detection in Massive Cargo,” (19 January 2010)