Wired Magazine has a story today on a $12,000 nuclear detector built by a group of volunteer researchers in San Francisco:
Here on the San Francisco Bay, a group of do-it-yourself volunteer researchers are not waiting for the mushroom cloud. They say they are close to perfecting a portable device that could do much the same thing right now, for total out-of-pocket costs of about $12,000.
The group, led by physicist and Sandia Lab weapons subcontractor Stanley Glaros, says it has already built a boat-mounted scanner with off-the-shelf parts that might reliably spot radiation spikes in containerships at sea from a kilometer away. The team’s detector has been up and running for eight months, and the group plans to publish its test findings in the Review of Scientific Instruments.
“Can we detect hazardous material at a distance?” said Glaros. “Yes, easily.”
….the team is now testing a homemade detector based on a 4-inch by 4-inch by 16-inch sodium iodide crystal, custom grown by Saint Gobain, a subsidiary of Compagnie de Saint-Gobain headquartered in Paris, France. It is the same technology used in many monitors currently deployed at ports around the country. It will also be used in most of the new Advanced Spectroscopic Portals being purchased by DHS.
“The crystal is like Frodo’s sword,” explained a Glaros collaborator. “It starts to glow when the bad stuff’s around, kind of a blue fluorescence.”
Faced with a large-crystal scanner, terrorists would find it extremely difficult to hide 10 kilograms of Uranium 235, the amount needed to construct a first-generation Chinese- or Pakistani-designed weapon. To shield it, a terrorist “would have to get a shit load of lead bricks and put the source inside,” said Glaros. Theoretically, the device could also detect a Soviet era plutonium fueled suitcase bomb.
The article provides additional details on how this system works, and discusses the challenges about how to respond to a positive indication from a detector. If this system can do what it claims, then it’s something that DHS should consider for deployment on other vessels, essentially as a small “side bet” as part of its broader portfolio of intended nuclear detection capabilities.