Monday, November 5, 2012

Cargo Scanning Reaches New Heights with Technology Detecting Radioactive Freight

Hadron Collider Spins Off a Practical Result for Shippers
Shipping News Feature

UK – WORLDWIDE – Two years ago, following the discovery of live explosive devices aboard US bound passenger planes, ink cartridges loaded as freight in the hold of a UPS aircraft the Handy Shipping Guide was bombarded by journalists from around the globe wanting to discover more about security procedures, particularly with regard to cargo loaded in the belly of passenger planes.

Interest soon waned however when we had to repeatedly point out that, no matter how much each of us knew about security procedures in place at the time, it would hardly remain secure if we divulged all to the world’s press. Sadly not all in the logistics sector were as reticent and for fifteen minutes of fame other ‘experts’ appeared on TV screens and in the rest of the media.

The same secrecy to avoid revealing potential gaps in security however is not necessary when reviewing the latest developments being deployed at Britain’s airports and other border points for where there was perhaps a chink in the armour these are rapidly being filled to the best of anybody’s ability.

This week for example East Midlands Airport, the same Castle Donington facility which found the Yemeni produced cartridges just seven hours before they were due to explode, has installed a scanner which features dual x-ray capability giving a 3D image of the product scanned. This can halve the time taken to review cargo and is intended for use on the thousands of non palletised parcels which pass through the airport every month.

The machine is the XIS-100XDV from Astrophysics Incorporated in the USA supplied via their UK and Irish distributor Totalpost and is a model now widely used by many international airports. Whilst a new scanner upgrade may not be that interesting there is news this week that may assist in the fight against terrorism, and in particular to the threat which most experts consider to be the worst possible case scenario in the field – the dirty bomb.

Any form of nuclear attack is terrifying in the extreme and with International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) reports showing almost 150 cases of radioactive materials beyond formal state control last year the threat of an incident is given the highest priority by national security groups. With the introduction of technology developed as a sideline to the works continuing in Cerne at the home of the Hadron Collider it seems a new generation of scanners capable of detecting nuclear material, even when shielded in lead, the traditional method to avoid discovery, is now being made available.

Up to now the nuclear ‘sniffers’ present at international airports like London’s Heathrow and used during the recent Olympics might possibly have been fooled by a sufficiently thick lead coating but the new scanners can apparently use the new technology to bypass such protection.

When running, the Large Hadron Collider produces vast amounts of unstable subatomic particles known as leptons. One of this family of particles, the muon, has a mass around two hundred times greater than an electron and eventually decays to produce at least one electron. The greater mass of the muon allows it to pass much deeper into objects than the traditionally used electron, hence its use as a scanning aid. All radioactive materials have a ‘signature’ and as the muons pass through them and are deflected the unique pattern produced indicates a radioactive presence, no matter how well shielded, hence their value as a detection aid.

Obviously the timetable for the deployment of scanning machines of this type is subject to security restrictions but it is known that the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) the multinational association dedicated to prevent terrorist attacks by this method and comprising representatives from eighty five nations, has included the new technology in their ‘Best Practice’ policy following discussions on new ways to combat the threat and this matter was reviewed some months prior to London 2012.

Photo: XIS-100XDV scanner courtesy of Astrophysics Incorporated.