Saturday, June 19, 2010

Nuke Smuggling Gets Easier?

...beep...beep...I think I've detected a roadrunner...Stopping nuclear smuggling is already hard - but it's getting a lot harder. A crucial ingredient in neutron-particle-detection technology is in very short supply... and ironically, the reason is the reduction in nuclear weapons!
Ok, some quick science-speak: the Helium-3 isotope represents less than 0.0002% of all helium. About 80% of Helium-3 is used for security purposes, because it is extremely sensitive to detecting neutrons (such as emitted by plutonium, a nuclear ingredient). H-3 is a decay product of tritium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen used to 'up-the-bang' of nukes. Problem: tritium production ended in 1988, and the half-life decay of tritium is only about 12 years. These days the USA's H-3 supply comes from dismantled nuclear weapons.
In normal-speak: the supply of nuke-detecting H-3 can't keep up with the global demand to detect plutonium that may be smuggled by terrorists!
...opps! So the US Energy Department (sole US supplier of Helium-3) and Department of Homeland Security (responsible for stopping illicit nuclear material) are in a real bind. If it can't be resolved by de-commissioning more US nukes (of which there are over 5,000) to source the tritium before it decays, does that mean more nukes will have to be built to get more tritium to get more H-3 to detect more smuggled nukes that may have been stolen because more were built to get more tritium to get more H-3...etc etc...???

Meanwhile, NZ hosts many of the world's biggest players in the nuclear reactor industry this coming week - could be an interesting meeting, given the local populace's wholehearted aversion to nukes!

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