Researchers helping government see through terrorist border plots

Canada and the United States own title to the world’s longest, undefended border.

Two physicists from Carleton University are helping to keep it that way.

Using highly penetrating muons — or cosmic rays — physics professors Gerald Oakham and John Armitage are researching a device that will be able to peek through shipping containers on the lookout for heavy nuclear materials being transported across the border. Though the device is still in being researched, it should be capable of quickly developing an image of a truck’s contents for use by security officials, says Oakham.

“We’re using (the naturally occurring particles) to basically take a picture of the inside of the truck,” he says, adding that they measure the particles entering and exiting a container to build up an image. “The idea is to try to do this in half a minute or so.”

Speed is the key, says Oakham, in order to allow inspectors to be thorough without disrupting the flow of traffic at the border. The first step in the physicists’ research will be to see exactly how good of a detector they need to achieve their desired efficiency.

The project — which includes some big name defence partners including Defence Research and Development Canada, Canadian Border Services Agency, Atomic Energy of Canada, Radiation Protection Bureau and International Safety Research — is being funded by a $2.55 million grant by the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Research and Technology Initiative.

“I think it’s very useful to take the technology we develop and apply it in a community or industrial setting,” adds Oakham. “The fact that we can (make the world safe) in the process is even better.”

Security has been stepped up on both sides of the border since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Last year, the Canadian government designated $75 million for improving the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The CBSA seized 662 guns at the border in 2007 — up from 509 in 2006.

X-ray machines could be used to detect nuclear materials but there is a potential hazard in using X-rays. If, for example, a container contained stowaways, the X-ray levels would be a significant health risk to them. Nuclear materials give off X-rays that can in principle be detected, however it is possible to shield materials against such detection.

Cosmic rays could offer a safer and more viable alternative for container inspection by obtaining a tomographic image, says Oakham. “We don’t use any radioactive sources.”

A muon device could help prevent terrorism but it also has potential industrial applications. Oakham assumes the device will come in handy for facilities legitimately in the business of transferring nuclear fuels. Cosmic rays, he said, could make the job easier and safer by reducing the need for employees to open containers to inspect the contents.

“Some nuclear power facilities might want to examine what’s in closed containers without actually opening them,” he says.

Following the success of detector building for international experiments like ATLAS, SNO and OPAL, prototypes for the first muon device will also be built on Carleton’s campus.

“We have a very good facility here for making detectors,” says Oakham.

“We plan on doing some of the prototyping and some of the building.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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