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Arktis – Protecting The Future By Julian Nettlefold

arktisThe ever-present threat of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or a ‘dirty bomb’ ** terrorist attack on a major international city was brought to the forefront after the event of 9/11. The problem with detecting a dirty bomb before it is detonated is the difficulty in differentiating between the radiation emitted by the dirty bomb and all the other, benign radiation in the environment. To address this challenge, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated a solicitation and put it out to industry to provide a detector that would be robust, efficient, and low-cost enough to detect such radiation in a novel way.

Since the 9/11 attacks the fear of terrorist groups using dirty bombs has increased significantly, which has been frequently reported in the media. The meaning of terrorism used here, is described by the U.S. Department of Defense’s definition, which is, ‘the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological objectives,’

There have only ever been two cases of caesium-containing bombs, and neither was detonated. Both involved Chechnya. The first attempt of radiological terror was carried out in November 1995 by a group of Chechen separatists, who buried a caesium-137 source wrapped in explosives at the Izmaylovsky Park in Moscow. A Chechen rebel leader alerted the media, the bomb was never activated, and the incident amounted to a mere publicity stunt.

In December 1998, a second attempt was announced by the Chechen Security Service, who discovered a container filled with radioactive materials attached to an explosive mine. The bomb was hidden near a railway line in the suburban area Argun, ten miles east of the Chechen capital of Grozny. The same Chechen separatist group was suspected to be involved. Despite the increased fear of a dirty bombing attack, it is hard to assess whether the actual risk of such an event has increased significantly. The following discussions on implications, effects and probability of an attack, as well as indications of terror groups planning such, are based mainly on statistics, qualified guessing and a few comparable scenarios.

Constructing and obtaining material for a dirty bomb

One of the problems contributing to the dirty bomb threat is the fact that the radioactive material required to make a dirty bomb is widely available through criminals accessing nuclear isotopes in locations including hospitals and nuclear facilities. So, as well as developing technology to detect the radiation, moves were made to strengthen security at all such facilities.

In order for a terrorist organization to construct and detonate a dirty bomb, it must acquire radioactive material by stealing it or buying it through legal or illegal channels. Possible RDD material could come from the hundreds of thousands of radioactive sources used worldwide in the industry, for medical purposes and in academic applications mainly for research.

Of these sources the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has estimated that within the U.S., approximately one source is lost, abandoned or stolen every day of the year. Within the European Union the annual estimate is 70. There exist thousands of such ‘orphan’ sources scattered throughout the world, but of those reported lost, no more than an estimated 20 percent can be classified as a potential high security concern if used in a RDD. Especially Russia is believed to house thousands of orphan sources, which were lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A large but unknown number of these sources probably belong to the high security risk category. Noteworthy are the beta emitting strontium-90 sources used as radioisotope thermoelectric generators for beacons in lighthouses in remote areas of Russia.

In December 2001, three Georgian woodcutters stumbled over such a power generator and dragged it back to their camp site to use it as a heat source. Within hours they suffered from acute radiation sickness and sought hospital treatment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) later stated that it contained approximately 40 kilocuries (1.5 PBq) of strontium, equivalent to the amount of radioactivity released immediately after the Chernobyl accident (though the total radioactivity release from Chernobyl was 2500 times greater at around 100 MCi (3,700 PBq)).

Although a terrorist organization might obtain radioactive material through the ‘black market,’ and there has been a steady increase in illicit trafficking of radioactive sources from 1996 to 2004, these recorded trafficking incidents mainly refer to rediscovered orphan sources without any sign of criminal activity, and it has been argued that there is no conclusive evidence for such a market. In addition to the hurdles of obtaining usable radioactive material, there are several conflicting requirements regarding the properties of the material the terrorists need to take into consideration: First, the source strength, second, the way of transporting the source to its destiny, and third, the dispersibility of the source.

An example of a worst-case scenario is a terror organization possessing a source of very highly radioactive material, e.g. a strontium-90 thermal generator, with the ability to create an incident of mass terror. Although the detonation of a dirty bomb using such a source might seem terrifying, it would be hard to assemble the bomb and transport it without severe radiation damage and possible death of the perpetrators involved. Shielding the source effectively would make it almost impossible to transport and a lot less effective if detonated.

Due to the three constraints of making a dirty bomb, RDDs might still be defined as ‘high-tech’ weapons and this is probably why they have not been used up to now.

The Venture Competition

 At the same time as the department of Homeland Security stepped up on their plans to protect against rad/nuc threats, a Venture competition was organized by McKinsey and ETH Zurich with a prize of £50,000. Several entries were submitted and the Prize was won by a Team consisting of Rico Chandra, Giovanna Davatz and Mario Voegeli, who had begun collaborating in the wake of a number of major events that highlighted the need to counter the emerging nuclear threat to world security. The team leveraged their extensive understanding of nuclear physics to the production of next generation radiation detection systems. The vision was to produce systems that have enhanced performance, can better detect shielded hazardous materials and that significantly improve security across the globe.

Following the win, the team formed Arktis Radiation Detectors which was incorporated in Zurich, Switzerland in 2007. Since its inception, Arktis has followed a strategic growth path and employs highly skilled scientists and engineers who have developed proprietary radiation detection technologies based on research originally undertaken at ETH Zurich, a leading European technical university, on behalf of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). A key feature of the innovative detection methods developed by Arktis is that it provides customers with a unique potential to discover shielded nuclear materials such as Plutonium through a combination of fast and thermal neutron as well as gamma detection.

Using the detector technology developed to locate dark matter Arktis was one of the companies to respond to the DARPA solicitation and offered a new nuclear detector which used Helium 4 (He-4), which unlike its expensive sister isotope He-3, is not a byproduct of nuclear bomb manufacturing as the core for the detector.

Rico Chandra, CEO of Arktis Radiation Detectors said, “Against a backdrop of increased fears over acts of terrorism, our scientists have created a range of detection systems that stand apart from anything else on the market. The response from potential customers has been very positive indeed. This new technology will play a key role in countering the threat to safety of individuals and organisations across the globe. Recurring incidents of theft of dangerous radioactive materials are generating growing interest in our range of innovative new detection technologies.”

The news of these recent events comes on the back of a report that highlights the number of times where nuclear or radiological materials—the raw materials for nuclear and radiological terrorism—were lost, stolen or discovered out of regulatory control. These sources are called ‘orphaned sources.’ The report – produced by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) with support from NTI – claims there were 170 such events in 2014, a significant increase on 2013.

Responding to these growing threats Arktis sourced new capital to grow the company and to develop new systems as well as to beef up the Main Board with a team of Directors expert in their field. The Company now employs 22 people and has been nearly doubling its revenue annually in recent years.

Arktis has now developed a range of innovative new detection products to find such sources and prevent them from being misused, the company is working with governments and agencies across the globe to bring these detection systems to market.

The proprietary technology, developed by scientists at the company’s headquarters in Zurich, is unique in that it features the use of pure noble gas scintillation for neutron radiation detection. Many legacy radiation detection systems – such as He-3 or BF-3 based neutron detectors – were based on rare, expensive or even toxic materials. Noble gases, such as Helium 4 (He-4) though, are abundantly available, low-cost and an extremely safe resource. To give an idea about its safety and availability: Helium 4 is also the gas used in kids’ balloons.

New Detection System

Scientists and engineers at Arktis were quick to spot the potential of noble gases and have developed proprietary radiation detection technologies based on research originally undertaken at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), on behalf of ETH Zurich. Arktis has been able to use this new technology to produce a range of products that perform better, achieve more, yet cost less to deploy and operate than most other systems on the market. The products are highly versatile and can be used for a variety of applications from security screening of containers and lorries at borders and ports to the identification of contaminated materials headed for the supply chain.

Other manufacturers based their detection technologies using He-3, but it became apparent during the development of the He-3 systems that not only was He-3 becoming increasingly expensive it was also difficult to source. Thus engineers at Arktis developed a new system using noble gases including Helium 4 (He-4) which is freely available from natural gas.
Rico Chandra said, “We have invested considerable resources and time in the developments of these advanced noble gas system and we look forward to leveraging our proven experience of developing detection systems based on He-4 Gas Scintillation technology.”

In 2013 a system was shown to the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) which expressed interest in acquiring the system. The competitive contract to provide the new system – which will better detect potentially dangerous shielded nuclear materials – was awarded to ARKTIS in 2014 after AWE completed an in-depth evaluation of several other existing and emerging technologies on the market. Following extensive evaluation AWE ordered one system which was shipped to AWE and passed Site Acceptance Testing.


darpaSuch is the interest in the new technology that Arktis is now a rapidly emerging player in the radiation detection business. The company is on a planned growth path and has achieved sales in all its key markets. In the last few months alone, Arktis has supplied one of its Flash Systems to Swiss Steel where it is being used to conduct a final check for inadvertently contaminated scrap metals headed for the furnaces, Arktis was one of the companies that DARPA* funded to develop a next generation neutron detection platform.

Following the success of the AWE contract, Arktis then announced a second major step forward with the award of a contract from DARPA. ARKTIS later announced that the detailed design of its newest detection system had passed DARPA’s Critical Design Review.

The new technology promises to provide a significant advancement in capability over current nuclear detection systems on the market, at only a fraction of the cost, and has been designed by engineers at Arktis as part of its contract within DARPA’s SIGMA Program.

The new detectors being developed will be equipped with enhanced communication technologies. The new systems are designed to facilitate monitoring for nuclear and illicit radioactive materials over wide areas when networked, providing a detection capability far beyond that of protection technologies typically used today. Arktis is preparing to mass produce their new detectors at the DARPA-required cost profile and is now gearing up for full-rate production at 100 detection systems/months by 2017.

The production of these new systems comes at a time when governments and agencies across the world are becoming increasingly aware of the threats posed by terrorists with access to nuclear or radiological weapons such as dirty bombs. The new technologies being developed for DARPA aim to mitigate these threats.

Rico Chandra commented, “To be working with an organisation that is focused on delivering transformational change in the security sector is a perfect fit for us. And the timing is right: In these times of geopolitical tensions we see an important opportunity to contribute substantially to a safer world for all.”

New Threats and Technology

Swiss_Steel_2Having established the core technology, Arktis then embarked on a process of refining this technology and to adapt it to various types to suit new and predicted threats. Arktis’ product portfolio consists of scalable fast response neutron and gamma detector systems to enhance the performance of radiological/nuclear screening infrastructure in a smart and efficient way. They are available as standalone systems (portal monitors and van-mounted systems) as well as OEM systems, to be integrated into existing infrastructure. These included the development of detection nodes for cities networked to a central control station and mobile detectors for port and airport security. Developments over a period from 2010 to 2016 saw the sensors refined to smaller and more advanced systems with new and advanced systems supported by advanced open architecture IP-enabled networks.

Market numbers indicate that the serviceable available market (SAM) for such systems will rise from $800 million in 2015 to $1.15 billion in 2019 and the SAM for components from $80 million to $140 million over the same period.

Details of new Security Solutions/Detection Systems


ark1Mobile Van-mounted Rad/Nuc Detection System is a versatile Rad/Nuc Detection System (MODES_SNM) to discover Special Nuclear Material (SNM) and radioactive sources. Rapidly relocatable to detect and identify at borders, ports, airports, and for strategic and intelligence-based operations, including urban environments which can also be rented and leased.

MODES_SNM is Rapidly relocatable to detect and identify

* Special Nuclear Materials (Uranium & Plutonium)

* Illicit sources out of regulatory control

* Contaminated cargo (steel, consumer goods)

FLASH Radiation Portal Monitor (RPM)

Arktis_FLASH2Relocatable portal monitor to detect and identify

* Special Nuclear Materials (Uranium & Plutonium)

* Illicit sources out of regulatory control

* Contaminated cargo (steel, consumer goods)

scanning without impact on flow of goods.

Can be deployed as a re-locatable RPM with tablet-based graphical user interface and ANSI 42.42 data export.

Portal Monitor Upgrade for better SNM Sensitivity

Minimal invasive Radiation Portal Monitor (RPM) upgrade enhancing conventional PVT portal monitors to reduce false alarms from naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) and enhance Special Nuclear Material (SNM) detection probability.

Minimal invasive upgrade to enhance detection capability to

* Special Nuclear Materials (Uranium & Plutonium)

* Illicit sources out of regulatory control

* Contaminated cargo (steel, consumer goods)

scanning without impact on flow of goods.

Prototype Detector Device for Dry Cask Monitoring

In 2014 Arktis Radiation Detectors announced that it is supporting a new project funded by the US Department of Energy to build and demonstrate a prototype detector device capable of unambiguously verifying stored, spent nuclear fuel.

The new system will non-intrusively check Dry Casks, used to store high-level radioactive waste at fuel storage installations, in order to monitor their contents. Arktis will collaborate on the new research and development project with the University of Florida (UF).

The storage of Spent Nuclear Fuels (SNF) is a big issue. On average, each of the 104 operating reactors in the United States produces 20 metric tons of plutonium per year. With on-site SNF pools filling up, and no centralized repository available in the near term, the amount of fuel being kept in dry storage for an extended period of time is a concern to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agency has therefore called for improved methods to verify the content of sealed dry casks in order to restore a continuity of knowledge about their contents and to facilitate the creation of a comprehensive inventory of all stored nuclear materials.

The new system being designed by UF will feature a neutron spectroscopy and imaging system using high-efficiency Helium-4 gas scintillation via fast neutron detectors developed by Arktis. The systems deliver numerous advantages over legacy neutron and gamma detectors and can be used for a wide range of applications. The use of He-4 – or Noble Gases – is paramount; the material is readily available and at a much lower cost than the He-3 gases typically used in current detection systems.


Companies such as Arktis come across the BATTLESPACE radar at all too infrequent intervals. The level of technology and sophistication resident at Arktis with its team of engineers is a tribute to the founding team who developed technology literally designed for the frontiers of space to be used at the forefront in the fight against global terrorist attacks.


* DARPA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. DARPA was created in February 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Its purpose was to formulate and execute research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science, with the aim to reach beyond immediate military requirements.  DARPA is independent from other military research and development and reports directly to senior Department of Defense management. DARPA has ca. 240 personnel (13 in management, close to 140 technical) directly managing a $3 billion budget. DARPA-funded projects have provided significant technologies that influenced many non-military fields, such as computer networking and graphical user interfaces in information technology. (Source: Wikipedia)

**A dirty bomb or radiological dispersal device (RDD) is a speculative radiological weapon that combines radioactive material with conventional explosives. The purpose of the weapon is to contaminate the area around the dispersal agent/conventional explosion with radioactive material, serving primarily as an area denial device against civilians. It is however not to be confused with a nuclear explosion, such as a fission bomb, which by releasing nuclear energy produces blast effects far in excess of what is achievable by the use of conventional explosives. Though a RDD would be designed to disperse radioactive material over a large area, a bomb that uses conventional explosives and produces a blast wave would be far more lethal to people than the hazard posed by radioactive material that may be mixed with the explosive.[1] At levels created from probable sources, not enough radiation would be present to cause severe illness or death. A test explosion and subsequent calculations done by the United States Department of Energy found that assuming nothing is done to clean up the affected area and everyone stays in the affected area for one year, the radiation exposure would be “fairly high”, but not fatal.[2][3] Recent analysis of the nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster confirms this, showing that the effect on many people in the surrounding area, although not those in close proximity, was almost negligible.[4]

Since a dirty bomb is unlikely to cause many deaths by radiation exposure, many do not consider this to be a weapon of mass destruction.[2] Its purpose would presumably be to create psychological, not physical, harm through ignorance, mass panic, and terror. For this reason dirty bombs are sometimes called “weapons of mass disruption”. Additionally, containment and decontamination of thousands of victims, as well as decontamination of the affected area might require considerable time and expense, rendering areas partly unusable and causing economic damage. (Source: Wikipedia)





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