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Russian Scientists Create Detector for Dirty Bombs

Detecting fissile material, explosives and other illegal chemicals among thousands of containers in ports, freight depots or airports places heavy demands on security enforcement agencies and governments responsible for protecting civilians and infrastructure from terrorist attacks. The challenge nowadays is to tackle security issues without disrupting the flow of merchandise coming in and out of countries. The increase in inspections at borders has resulted in millions of dollars of new expenses for companies shipping goods across the world. Quick, efficient, and affordable detection technology is, therefore, a priority need. 

Russian scientists might have cracked the code and developed a detector that could identify dirty bombs even if shielded by lead, which would make them invisible to traditional detectors. The team from the Khlopin Radium Institute in St Petersburg developed, with the financial support of the International Science and Technology Center, a neutron-based technique for penetrating containers and identifying the composition of dangerous material within a few minutes, and with a very high level of accuracy thanks to the powerful software that analyses the received data.

“Our detector is probably the only one at the present that can provide automatic identification of suspicious objects without handling them. Any other technique such as high energy X-ray technology would depend on the operator’s skills or have a prohibitive price tag”, explains the Project Manager, Andrey Kuznetsov.

The estimated market price for the device is $400,000 USD, compared to $22 million for its closest analogue, the ANCOR Cargo Inspector, according to the project manager. The detector weighs 100 kg and can be easily moved from one place to another, but an even more compact 30 kg version is available for scanning unattended luggage and packages. Plus, the developed device may be adapted to other security related areas such as the inspection of vehicles or the detection of buried explosives. 

To date, similar detectors required very strong, high-cost neutron generators and shielding to protect the personnel, which is not the case with the new technology because the neutron emission is about 1000 times weaker than other existing devices.

The Canadian Government and the European Commission funded the 500,000$ project through the International Science and Technology Center in the frame of the G8 Global Partnership Program aimed at reducing terrorist threats. 

Read Technical Report on the Project


Similar available detectors and comparative parameters


ISTC #3534

ANCOR Cargo Inspector


Development stage


Production terminated due to low efficiency and high cost


Number of detected chemical elements

Up to 28

Up to 10

Up to 10

Detection of nuclear materials





1 operator

3-5 operators

2-3 operators


Under 100 kg

Tens of tons

~1000 kg





Power consumption

Under 500 W

Hundreds of kW

Tens of kW


~400k$ (estimated)




Detection of chemical explosives: (30 kg, plastic package in the middle of a middle-sized container). Mock-up surrounded by computers and displays. NNA-based portable device is assembled into two mobile crates (left crate – neutron generator and; right crate – gamma detectors).



Detection of hazardous materials surrounded by welfare items and innocuous materials (electronics, sugar and washing powder) inside a middle-sized container. NNA-based portable device: 1. View of the neutron generator module assembled into the blue mobile crate (container is on the background). 2. View of the neutron generator from the side of the neutron target. 



NNA-based portable device: 3. View of the gamma detectors’ module inside the blue mobile crate. 4. View of the gamma detectors’ module from the side of BGO crystals (12).


A new ISTC project starting at the Khlopin Institute intends to solve the problem encountered on an American nuclear material detector. The detector needs helium 3 to operate but there is a shortage of it worldwide. The US Department of Homeland Security has spent $230 million so far to build and deploy its 1,300 machines but the program is currently stalled because of a deficit of raw material. The solution of this problem would provide great commercialization opportunities for the Russian institute. For more information about this question, read the New York Times’ article