A new system designed to better detect radiological threats by being more precise in distinguishing their radiation signature from natural backgrounds –– is being trialed at customs organizations across Europe.

The Modular Detection System for Special Nuclear Material (MODES_SNM) eases the operational burden associated with the expensive process of investigating the many “everyday” sources of benign radiation such as cat litter, fertilizer, ceramic tiles and even Brazil nuts.

The MODES_SNM system - the first of its type in the world to combine fast and thermal neutron detection - is the result of a pan-European R&D effort – funded by the European Commission under its FP7 framework program – that developed and integrated technologies originating in fundamental science research conducted at places like CERN, the European Laboratory for Nuclear Research near Geneva. It has already undergone rigorous tests at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre and the Port of Rotterdam, and is now being tested by the Irish tax and customs administration.

As part of the recent tests the system has been used to verify that parked containers do not contain threats such as uranium, plutonium, or radiological components for "dirty bombs”.

A unique advantage of the MODES_SNM system – which is modular and mission configurable - is its ability to identify materials surrounding a potential threat object. This information is of high value, as it can allow operators to exclude the possibility of a detected plutonium source being a “ready-to-go” nuclear weapon. Furthermore, the MODES_SNM system is more sustainable than current systems, as it does not use 3He, the expensive raw material that is typically used in most neutron detection systems.

Michael Doherty, detection technology expert with the Irish tax and customs administration said “ The MODES_SNM project unites specialists from a number of fields ranging from customs to nuclear physics. In the space of just 2 years, MODES_SNM has been able to deliver the latest cutting edge technology for testing by end users across Europe.“


MODES_SNM is a consortium made up of the University of Padova (Italy), Arktis Radiation Detectors Ltd (Switzerland), the National Centre for Nuclear Research in Poland, ETH Zurich (Switzerland), CAEN Spa (Italy), the University of Insubria (Italy), the Revenue Commissioners (Ireland), and the University of Liverpool (UK).

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 284842. More information can be found on www.modes-snm.eu.

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