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European project develops a system for radioactive threats and dirty bombs detection

An international consortium led by the CSIC will develop a mobile system based on microelectronic technologies. It will enable the detection of threats such as trafficking of illegal radioactive material or nuclear terrorism.


Orphan radioactive sources.A European project led by the National Center of Microelectronics of the Spanish Research Council (CSIC) will develop a flexible system for the detection of nuclear and radioactive  threats. The project REWARD (REal-time Wide-Area RaDiation Surveillance System) will run for 36 months and is funded by the European Union through the 7th Framework Programme.


Manuel Lozano, a scientist at the CSIC’s National Center of Microelectronics  and coordinator of REWARD explains that the goal is “to develop a portable and intelligent system, highly sensitive and at a low cost to enable a permanent control of nuclear threats, such as lost radioactive sources or the smuggling of nuclear material,like uranium and plutonium”.

The system would also enable the detection of radiological dispersal devices (“dirty bombs”), that combine radioactive material with conventional explosives, “something unlikely to happen but not impossible”, says the CSIC scientist. 

Governments are increasingly concerned about the increasing availability of radioactive material in countries with ineffective control systems or without them, and the possibilities that this situation could offer to smuggling and nuclear terrorism. Therefore, a situation where a terrorist group introduced a dirty bomb in a city is unlikely to happen but not impossible.
According to figures out by of the International Atomic Energy Agency  there are thousands of lost radioactive sources, in many cases as a result of facilities that have been abandoned and left without control.

Eight research centers and companies from Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy will collaborate on REWARD. The sensing unit will include gamma and neutron sensors, a wireless communication interface and a GPS system. Also, the software package and the expert system that will receive and analyze the signal from the sensors in real time will be developed.

The goal is to achieve unit detectors cheap enough to be installed in many places, explains Manuel Lozano. Places such as strategic buildings that could become targets of terrorism, or vehicles of the security forces and civil protection bodies to continuously monitor urban areas. The system will not only  detect any unusual increase in radiation but will also identify the source and its location.

The communications system will work with the radio frequency of the security forces bodies. In that sense, the project counts on the collaboration of security forces that will evaluate the system: the Home Affairs department of the Generalitat de Cataluña, the Spanish Guardia Civil, and the Civil Protection Unit of Campania (Italia).

To reduce the costs, the team will use novel solid-state detector technologies and will replace the scarce and expensive isotope Helium-3, which has been used traditionally for neutron detection, for new and cheaper materials.  

Web of the project