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Detecting the Silent Menace: Atoms Support the Search for Landmines

Photo: Tim Grant/ICBL

People living in more than 70 countries, mostly in the developing world, daily face the "silent menace" posed by an estimated 60 million buried and abandoned landmines. Nuclear techniques may help the search to find them before the explosives claim more human lives. IAEA-supported projects in Croatia and other countries are helping to point the way forward.

Landmines left behind from armed conflicts kill about 26,000 people every year and maim even more. Most victims are women, children and farmers in developing countries. To put an end to tragic losses, global efforts have intensified to ban landmines and to boost assistance to countries to clear their land of buried explosives. Such "humanitarian demining" is difficult and dangerous, requiring the complete removal of all mines and the return of the cleared minefields to normal use.

Most humanitarian demining today is done using portable metal detectors and trained dogs. Yet a major problem remains discriminating between a "dummy" object and a landmine. New technologies may improve the chances of detecting explosive objects buried in the ground. Methods include analysis by neutron irradiation for elemental characterization of hidden objects. Developments indicate that demining operations could be done considerably faster and more efficiently using neutron-based techniques. Countries are assessing the potential through a research project that the IAEA is supporting on the application of nuclear techniques to landmine identification. Twelve research groups from around the world are involved.

In Europe, a selected neutron-based system is being tested under field conditions through IAEA-supported technical cooperation projects, one with a regional focus and another targeted nationally in Croatia, where a laboratory is being established to study nuclear-based demining methods. Nearly 7000 square kilometers of Croatia are thought to house buried landmines and unexploded ordnance. The twin projects aim to significantly improve national and regional capabilities to reduce the threats that abandoned explosives pose to human life.

Last update: 27 July 2017


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