While 700 million travelers undergo TSA's intrusive scans and pat-downs each year, 11 million cargo containers enter American ports with little screening at all. And the volume of those containers, roughly equivalent to 590 Empire State Buildings of cargo, could contain something even worse than box knives or exploding shoes, namely nuclear weapons.
Two teams of North Carolina physicists are mapping the intricacies of the atomic nucleus, which they say could provide better security at the ports. The scientists have identified new "fingerprints" of nuclear materials, such as uranium and plutonium. The fingerprints would be used in new cargo scanners to accurately and efficiently identify suspicious materials. The physics might also be used to improve analysis of spent nuclear fuel rods, which are a potential source of bomb-making materials.
The problem starts at ports, where terrorists may try to smuggle an entire dirty bomb or even smaller amounts of plutonium or uranium by hiding it within the mountains of cargo that pass into the country each day. Cargo scanners using the new nuclear fingerprints would be sensitive enough to spot an entire bomb or the smaller parts to build one, according to Mohammad Ahmed, a nuclear physicist at Duke University.
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