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Decision Sciences’ X-Ray Alternative Worth Billions?

Richard Smith’s company is making what he says is the equivalent of the better mouse trap when it comes to screening systems that detect radiation or nuclear bombs.

Based on the behavior of little-known subatomic particles called muons, Smith and his colleagues at San Diego’s Decision Sciences Corp. are completing a prototype that can detect radioactive materials such as uranium and plutonium without using X-rays.

Current X-ray detection systems used by the federal government at the nation’s ports of entry, airports and other sites aren’t effective and are unsafe, said Smith.

“These are ineffective, they’re dangerous, and according to the GAO (the federal Government Accounting Office), they don’t work,” he said.

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Not only can X-rays endanger people who may be hiding inside cargo containers, or operators of the systems, a large dose could trigger an explosive device hidden inside a container, Smith said.

But the worst part of the current monitoring systems is their failure to always detect higher element materials, such as uranium and plutonium, especially if they are shielded.

The dangerous elements can also be shielded by such gamma ray emitting material as peas, Smith said.

DSC’s device, called Guardian MT, uses muons, or subatomic particles ubiquitous in the atmosphere that penetrate everything, including the heaviest elements.

By measuring the angles of the deflection of the muons as they bounce off certain materials, Guardian MT can create a three-dimensional image of what’s inside a container or package, Smith said.

To give an idea of how DSC’s systems work, the company produced a short video that shows two men of a Middle Eastern appearance setting off a timed bomb in the back of their van, and driving to a nearby nuclear power station.

As the van stops at a toll booth, the vehicle is scanned by the monitoring systems and a bomb detected, sending an alert to a security agent at an offsite office. Though aware something is amiss, agents permit the van to proceed, but they keep it under video surveillance along the street.

As the van proceeds, synchronized red lights slow its progress, allowing the system to gather more information about the vehicle, its registered owner, as well as a variety of other records that could signal possible terrorist actions.

In a matter of minutes, agents are alerted about a coordinated attack involving three other terrorist teams in three other cities, and all four vehicles are intercepted, preventing a synchronized attack similar to the coordinated attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.


Technology Exists

Smith said the technology to create the Guardian Knot, the proposed national security network, already exists. But funding it is an entirely different matter.

“There are political issues between various intelligence agencies, various law enforcement agencies, and various government agencies, and these are well-documented in the 9/11 Commission Report,” he said.

The DSC system resulted from a partnership struck last year with Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Smith said he read a scientific report on muon tomography in 2005, and decided it had potential.

“We found that nobody was interested in it or wanted it,” he said. “We said we did, signed an agreement and began to put money into it.”

While the science was done by Los Alamos physicists, DSC is funding development and has filed a dozen patents on the technology.

Since its launch in 2005, DSC has invested $4 million in research, most conducted in New Mexico. It has 25 employees locally, and 13 consultants in Los Alamos.

DSC is nearing the close of its fifth round of private funding, bringing the total raised to $12 million, said Smith, a former Navy pilot and founder of now defunct GreyStone Digital Technology.


Technology Has Merit

Before launching DSC, Smith said he was able to enlist some partners but declined to reveal their names.

Some of those who have observed DSC’s detection system say it deserves further testing.

“I’m aware of the technology and it’s the type of technology that we hope will be further evaluated,” said Ramon Ortiz, director of security at the Port of Tacoma in Washington state.

Ortiz said current monitoring systems in place at Tacoma’s port are working, although he said those systems could be improved.

“Is the system perfect? No, it can always be improved,” he said.

DSC’s detection systems have yet to be evaluated by the federal government, but Smith said top-level representatives of several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, have been briefed about what the company is developing, and he said most are interested.

However, a GAO report on similar radiation detection equipment evaluated by a unit of the Department of Homeland Security found that the devices did not meet federal standards.


Testing Prototypes

DSC is completing a prototype, and will begin internal testing in October. Smith said his business should start producing the devices in March.

A 158,000-square-foot plant in Chester, S.C., is being refitted to manufacture the device.

Smith said once DSC’s technology is perfected and tested against the current detection systems, he expects federal agencies and international customers to start placing orders.

He estimates the company could produce 3,000 units, with the largest at least 60 feet long and costing $2 million to screen shipping containers and trucks.

“There is about $1.5 billion immediately available (within the budget of DHS) to purchase 3,000 units and that’s what we’re targeting,” Smith said.

In recent years, Congress and DHS have haggled over the type of screening systems to be used at the nation’s ports. While DHS entered into vendor contracts for new systems last year, those contract have been put on hold until further successful testing.

“GAO does not want that $1.5 billion spent on stuff that doesn’t work,” he said.

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