NNSA Improves Technology for Radiation Detectors

Press Release
May 31, 2007
Scientists at Brookhaven National Lab Make Nonproliferation Tools More Effective and Efficient

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is developing new detection devices to monitor, locate and identify illicit nuclear and radiological material. Scientists at the department's Brookhaven National Laboratory funded by NNSA have improved the performance of radiation detectors, making the technology more accurate and cost-effective.

"At NNSA, we work closely with our national laboratories to counter the proliferation threat posed by illicit transfers of nuclear material. This new detection technology gives us one more tool to use. It will help NNSA to do its job better around the world and could even help other agencies and private companies here in the United States," said William Tobey, head of NNSA's nonproliferation programs, who noted that NNSA has the U.S. government's only long-term research and development program devoted to preventing the spread of nuclear and radiological materials.

The improved sensors can be operated at room temperature, making them more practical and cost-effective than existing, comparable detectors. Current detectors with similar performance must operate at very cold temperatures using liquid nitrogen, which is expensive and difficult to use in the field. The new sensors can also more accurately detect the radiation emitted by sources, such as dirty bombs and nuclear materials. Significantly improving efficiency and accuracy, the new sensors are also able to differentiate radiological and nuclear threats from a variety of harmless materials that emit radiation.

"In practical terms, the improved devices will be able to detect more minute quantities of radiation, detect radioactive materials more quickly or from greater distances, better identify the source of the radiation, and distinguish illicit sources of concern from common, naturally occurring radioactive materials," said Brookhaven physicist Aleksey Bolotnikov, one of the inventors.

The new sensors use a crystal called cadmium zinc telluride, which is much like the silicon used in today's computer chips. The Brookhaven scientists combine commercially produced higher quality crystal materials together with enhanced detector production designs in order to improve the performance of the new sensors.

NNSA's Office of Nonproliferation Research and Development conducts cutting-edge research, development, testing and evaluations. Together with the expertise of the department's national laboratories, the office improves the United States' ability to counter terrorism, and detect and deter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Established by Congress in 2000, NNSA is a separately organized agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, reliability and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing; works to reduce global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the United States and abroad.

Media contact(s):
NNSA Public Affairs (202) 586-7371