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Next-Generation Radiation Monitors Near Ready for Testing, GAO Says

Next-generation radiation monitors are now developed enough for advanced assessment trials, which if successful could lead to the new technology being used in U.S. counter-nuclear smuggling activities, Congressional Quarterly reported on Wednesday (see GSN, May 31).

The large majority of monitors currently in use employ a rare ingredient, helium 3, which is gathered from aging nuclear warheads by the Energy Department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration. Helium 3 is favored for radiation monitors because it is judged to be the most precise in detecting the presence of nuclear materials and because it is not toxic or radioactive. However, the gas is in short supply due to a declining number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal.

NNSA officials project they can annually collect 8,000-10,000 liters of the gas -- an amount that falls short of the demand from detector manufacturers and the medical research community, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office noted.

"In 2008, the U.S. government abruptly learned that it faced a severe shortage of helium 3 because of this reduction in supply and increase in demand," the investigative arm of Congress stated.

For years, scientists have been searching for a workable alternative to helium 3 and are now finally on the verge of serious breakthroughs in their efforts, the GAO report stated.

"GAO estimates this neutron detector is sufficiently mature such that a decision to use it in forthcoming portal monitor deployments can be made with confidence that the portals will perform as required," the investigators wrote.

The report cites three alternatives that could be used instead of helium 3. They are: boron 10, boron trifluoride and lithium 6.

Of those three, GAO auditors found that the boron 10-based technology was the furthest developed and that detectors using the isotope as a conversion material could be tested as soon as next year.

Each of the three options has a similar performance level to helium 3, the report said. While boron trifluoride is not as quite efficient, its availability means that it can be utilized in larger amounts to make up for the efficiency deficit.

However, both lithium 6 and boron 10 are export-regulated substances and boron trifluoride is poisonous.

GAO investigators were optimistic, though, that further development and testing would ultimately yield a suitable alternative to helium 3.

"Federal agencies should therefore be able to continue the deployment of radiation portal monitors with minimal additional program delays and with minimal use of additional helium 3," the report said (Rob Margetta, Congressional Quarterly, Nov. 2).

NTI Analysis

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