Preventing the Next Case:
IAEA Project Helps Countries Test Nuclear Technique for Detecting Landmines
by M. Samiei, IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation
More than 60 million landmines are buried in 62 countries, many of them in the Europe region. Abandoned landmines kill or maim about 26,000 persons every year, 80% of them civilians, mainly women, children, and farmers. Today, most humanitarian demining uses conventional methods such as metal detectors, prodders, and sniffer dogs for the dangerous job of finding and destroying abandoned landmines. But each method has limits, and new tools are needed to improve and accelerate efforts to prevent the next case of injury or death.
Results of various tests show that nuclear techniques have a big potential for identifying explosives in landmines. However, most of them are not yet ready for practical application under actual minefield conditions. To help guide development, the IAEA has brought together experts in recent years to help countries assess the picture. An Advisory Group Meeting (AGM) of experts in 2000 on the application of nuclear techniques to humanitarian demining reviewed existing methods and selected the most promising nuclear sensors for field testing and further field deployment.
In 2001 the Agency started a Technical Cooperation Project with a final aim to optimize one technique - called Pulsed Fast & Thermal Neutron Analysis, or PFTNA for short - for landmine identification under field conditions. The AGM concluded that the PFTNA technique is mature and promising enough to be tested in the field. Tests supervised by independent experts showed that pulsed elemental analysis with neutrons using an instrument called PELAN - based on PFTNA and developed in the USA - successfully identifies various kinds of explosives and differentiates them from innocuous materials or "dummy" buried objects.
In February 2002, the IAEA demonstrated PELAN at briefings organized for invited experts from organizations engaged in demining efforts in affected countries, to familiarize them with its capabilities and development. Demonstrations and project briefings also were held for Vienna-based staff from Member States having Permanent Missions to the IAEA, including a session attended by the Agency's Director General Mohamed ElBaradei.
Several IAEA Member States are requesting initiation of a project for field-testing and demonstration of the suitability of a pulsed neutron probe method for humanitarian demining. The USA already has provided $212,000 for the purchase of PELAN, and the IAEA now is evaluating proposals from leading laboratories in the USA, Russia, and European Union for optimizing the instrument. Once the instrument is more fully developed and tested under field conditions, it can become an important complementary instrument in a de-miner's kit - to help teams probing for landmines find the explosives before they injure or kill more people.