Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

NEutron Spectrometry to Prevent Illicit Nuclear Trafficking

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NESPINT (NEutron Spectrometry to Prevent Illicit Nuclear Trafficking)

Reporting period: 2017-01-01 to 2017-06-30

The project aims at developing an innovative detector, NESPINT, for detecting illicit trafficking of nuclear materials across international borders. The expected outcome of the project is a working prototype, tested in operational environment, to be implemented in security scanners. Illicit trafficking of nuclear materials through international borders is a big open problem worldwide, as in the 1993-2015 period 2922 confirmed incidents have been reported, out of which 188 in 2015.

This detector will be able to recognize whether nuclear material has been smuggled into a luggage or a container, thus significantly improving the security level at border and airport check points. Indeed, one of the most dreaded situations in these years is that a terrorist attack may involve the use of nuclear materials to manufacture dirty bombs or nuclear weapons. The product which will be developed in the project is currently conceived for a niche market, which involves a relatively low number of users in Europe. However, this market is constantly growing in size due to the increasing concerns involving nuclear terrorism.

The final objective is to install the detector in a number of European airports and at EU borders in order to stop the illicit trafficking of nuclear material. The attention will be especially focused on the borders close to the middle East and former Soviet republics, as it is well known that most of the nuclear material available for terrorist purposes come from those areas.

The action allowed us to prepare a clear, measurable and realistic business plan, to estimate the total and serviceable available market (TAM/SAM), to determine the technical and financial risks associated to the project, to define the applicable international standards, to prepare project valorisation plans, including cost/benefit analysis for patent registration, to perform networking activities, including participation in international events, for finding interest partners for phase 2, to analyse the bottlenecks in the ability to increase the project profitability, and to determine the budget requirements for the funding request to be submitted in phase 2.
The first two months after the beginning of the project allowed us to perform a detailed analysis of all the applicable national and international standards for putting the final product on the market. Indeed, the operation of a device in sensible areas like airports and borders, imposes the compliance with a high number of rules and regulations.

The third month allowed us making a budget estimation for phase 2, after having evaluated all the phases to be encountered during the potential future phase of the project. During this month, we also had the opportunity to talk with experts in the IP protection field, so that we could clarify our ideas on the future steps to be put in place for safely proceeding into the project.

During the fourth month we prepared a risk analysis to understand which are the main risks associated to the continuation of the project and which mitigation actions may be put in place to face these potential risks. This work was heavily supported by the help given by the EU tutor, Mr. Paolo Anselmo.

The fifth month allowed us to prepare a complete and precise business plan, for better understanding the potential profitability of the project.

The sixth and last month was used to finally determine the partners met during the first months that could be involved in phase 2 for the future proposal.

We are overall very satisfied about the outcome of this first phase, as we definitely increased our awareness about many important aspects involved in the project, which we never considered before. Moreover, these 6 months allowed us meeting many people expert in the field. All these meeting gave us the opportunity to better investigate some hidden problems, and to understand whether any suitable partner would have been available for joining the consortium in phase 2.
The project is aimed at progressing beyond state of the art in the field of detection of nuclear materials in illicit trafficking activities. In particular, the prototype to be developed will be an innovative detector that will be purchased by international agencies and companies involved in the homeland security market. It might be present in most European international airports and at EU borders. Very recently efforts have been put in the research of detectors based on nuclear reaction imaging capable of uncovering nuclear materials in closed items, but at present little experimental results support the theoretical bases.

The detector will be characterized by several advantages if compared to commercial instrumentation, as it does not employ 3He gas, thus avoiding any issue related to its worldwide shortage and to nuclear proliferation safeguards (3He derives from the decay of 3H used in nuclear weapons, thus only countries with a significant nuclear arsenal can provide it in sufficient quantities). Moreover, due to its low cost, estimated in 50’000 €, it could be installed also in countries with limited resources. It is in fact well-known that illicit trafficking mainly flows through less developed country borders, where there are reduced possibilities of setting up efficient screening systems. It determines the neutron spectrum potentially emitted by the screened items, thus assuring a precise isotope determination. This greatly reduces false positives and false negatives.

The detector will be employed for screening items with volume up to about 0.5 m3. In parallel with its introduction on the market, additional R&D projects will be started for increasing its market penetration: development of two additional versions: one with increased dimensions for screening larger items (trucks, containers, cargos) and a light weight one for use as a portable device; integration with a neutron generator and a gamma spectrometer for active interrogation of the item, in order to detect drug and explosives through their well-defined ratios of hydrogen/carbon/nitrogen/oxygen. This include potential identification of the triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosive, the material recently employed by terrorists in suicide attacks in Europe. This material passes does not contain nitrogen and thus passes undetected through conventional explosive scanners designed to detect only nitrogenous explosives.

The project perfectly fits with the innovation strategy of the company, which is aimed at diversifying the target markets by introducing in its range of products new devices in the domain of homeland security, a field in which the company has never been involved before. This will give to the company management team the opportunity to face a big challenge, as the penetration of the detector in the market will require efforts from all members of the team, including project management and problem solving capabilities. For the first time in its history, the company will have the opportunity to develop a product capable to excel at the worldwide level.