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Protecting Against Terrorism at U.S. Ports

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a major security concern has been that a terrorist group would try to smuggle nuclear or chemical weapons, or materials that could be used to make them, in one of the 10 million to 15 million cargo containers that enter U.S. ports every year. A new imaging technology that had its beginnings at an American university may enable rapid security screening of these containers without the need to physically inspect each one.

Nuclear resonance fluorescence imaging, which is being developed by researcher William Bertozzi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uses gamma rays to determine the chemical composition of concealed materials. Bertozzi had been working on NRF imaging for over a decade when the 2001 attacks galvanized efforts to protect the nation against further attack. Private and government funding helped to establish a company dedicated to developing NRF as a method to image cargo.

Using rays that can penetrate even lead-lined vessels, this technology allows for fast, easy identification of the materials inside sealed containers. The continued development of NRF imaging may provide an efficient way to scan cargo entering American ports, improving security without disrupting the pace of international trade.

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