Dirty bomb terror threat breakthrough: British scientists build machine to detect smuggling of nuclear materials

Technology expected to be rolled out across Britain's ports and airport as part of the UK's secret Cyclamen nuclear monitoring system

British scientists have created a machine that can detect terrorist attempts to smuggle nuclear material through ports and airports - even if it has been shielded from giving off radiation.

The Independent understands that prototypes of the machine - developed using a technique first established by experiments using the Large Hadron Collider - have already been tested by researchers at Britain's Atomic Weapons Establishment.

It is now expected to be rolled out across Britain's ports and airport as part of the UK's secret Cyclamen nuclear monitoring system.

The technology is unique because, unlike existing nuclear detectors, the new Muon-based machines can thwart attempts to disguise or hide radioactive material.

It works by passing tiny Muins - a type of subatomic particle - through containers and bags and monitoring how they bend as they pass through solid objects. As all nuclear materials have a unique density the machine can identify them even if they have been prevented from emitting radiation.

Results of early trials are to be discussed at a meeting of nuclear scientists and security experts from around the world in London today.

“The point of this machine is that you would need so much lead to stop detection that no tyres would be able to support a car or a truck carrying it,” said one British official.

“It is a significant step forward in our ability to be able to prevent nuclear proliferation or a dirty bomb attack.”

Statistics from the International Atomic Energy Authority reveal that last year there were 147 incidents of nuclear material being discovered outside state control.

Among the incidents were examples of loss of material from nuclear sites as well as targeted theft.

The Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt revealed at the meeting that nuclear detection facilities had been in place at the Olympic Park as part of security preparations.

It is also understood that some baggage scanning machines now in place at Heathrow and Gatwick also have basic ability to “sniff out” radioactivity.

Such machines might, for example, have been able to detect the polonium responsible for the death of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.

However they do not have the capability to detect nuclear substances shielded by lead. The new machines would not have that problem.

Speaking at the meeting of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, Mr Burt said it was clear that Britain faced a threat from a “thriving” global smuggling network.

“Nuclear terrorism is a real and global threat,” he said.

“A successful attack, no matter where in the world it came, would be catastrophic. Such an attack was unthinkable just a generation ago. But it is now a possibility we need to confront with the utmost vigilance.

He added: “The number of incidents of nuclear material detection and loss has been growing.

“It emphasises the importance of work like this to keep one step ahead and continue to keep acknowledging the importance of the threat.”

Speaking about the Olympics Mr Burt said that it had been an important test of Britain's capability in the area.

“In preparing for all sorts of threat against the Olympics - a nuclear attack was considered and work was done to make sure we had in place sufficient detectors to counter that,” he said.

“We are confident from the readings and results that our equipment was up to scratch and did its job. Nothing was detected that was in anyway untoward.”

GICNT, which first met in South Korea last year, is a grouping of more than 85 nations committed to strengthening the global capacity to prevent, detect and respond to nuclear terrorism.

The symposium in London today brought together scientists and experts around the world to discuss development in Muon technology and how it could be effectively rolled out across the world.

The Muon machines highlight how theoretical physics work - such as that done using the Large Hadron Collider - can have practical benefits in the 'real world'. It also helps explain why the project received such extensive financial support from European Governments.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering