U.K. Uses Cosmic-Ray Technology to Foil Nuclear Smugglers

British scientists are using technology developed at the Large Hadron Collider to create a new generation of detectors that harness cosmic rays to thwart smugglers of nuclear materials.

The machines, which are at the prototype stage, pick up muons, a type of subatomic particle that penetrates substances that block X-rays and many other types of radiation. Their path is deflected by very dense matter, a trait that can be used to help security forces detect radioactive materials as well as containers designed to shield them.

“Only six months ago, I would not have been able to openly discuss Britain’s work on detection,” Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt told a meeting of scientists in London today. “A particular success is the production of a muon-based detector using novel technologies, providing both a test bed for advanced detection methods and also arms control verification tools.”

The meeting of scientists from about 40 countries was intended to allow them to discuss better ways of stopping terrorists from acquiring and moving nuclear material. “The number of incidents of nuclear detection and loss has been growing,” Burt said.

Britain has deployed “passive sensors,” which detect increases in radioactivity, at ports and airports, and at the Olympic Park in London during this year’s games. No radioactive material was detected during the event, Burt said.

Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, built underground near Geneva, opened in 2008 and is designed to study subatomic physics and the origins of the universe.

“The technology has come a long way,” Burt said. “From its beginning in the 1960s, when Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez set up muon detectors in a chamber beneath the second pyramid of Cephron in Egypt to look for second chambers. Now nuclear detection systems are being developed that only take up a cubic meter of space and can produce three-dimensional images.”

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