Detection of Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Science, Technologies, Observations [August 4, 2009] [open pdf - 2MB]
From the Summary: "Detection of nuclear weapons and special nuclear material (SNM, certain types of uranium and plutonium) is crucial to thwarting nuclear proliferation and terrorism and to securing weapons and materials worldwide. Congress has funded a portfolio of detection R&D and acquisition programs, and has mandated inspection at foreign ports of all U.S.-bound cargo containers using two types of detection equipment. Nuclear weapons contain SNM, which produces unique or suspect signatures that can be detected. It emits radiation, notably gamma rays (high-energy photons) and neutrons. SNM is very dense, so it produces a bright image on a radiograph (a picture like a medical x-ray) when x-rays or gamma rays are beamed through a container in which it is hidden. Using lead or other shielding to attenuate gamma rays would make this image larger. Nuclear weapons produce detectable signatures, such as radiation generated by or a noticeable image on a radiograph. Other detection techniques are also available. […] This analysis leads to several observations for Congress. Some detection technology is advancing faster than many have expected. It is easier and less costly to accelerate a program in R&D than in production. 'Concept of operations' is crucial to detection system effectiveness. Congress may wish to address gaps and synergisms in the technology portfolio. Congress need not depend solely on procedures developed by executive agencies to test detection technologies, but may specify tests an agency is to conduct. Ongoing improvement in detection capabilities produces uncertainties for terrorists that will increase over time, adding deterrence beyond that of the capabilities themselves. This report will be updated occasionally."
CRS Report for Congress, R40154