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The Department of Energy is turning to old Star Trek phasers to protect its 103 civilian nuclear plants.
Energy weapons capable of harmlessly stunning intruders are being developed and should be in general use by 2008. But many experts warn they will be inadequate and unnecessary for the real security dangers nuclear plant guards would face.
U. S scientists have unveiled details of a project that aims to develop Star Trek-style ray guns that could keep "security adversaries" out of DoE nuclear sites, the vnu.com web-site in the Netherlands reported this week.
The DoE's Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance together with the Department of Defense, is "exploring the potential" of directed-energy weapons based on millimeter-wave rays, vnu.com said.
The report comes amid increasing fears that the 103 civilian nuclear power stations in the United States and the Department of Energy's other nuclear facilities are insufficiently guarded.
A recent in-depth investigation by Time magazine found that there are only 8,000 full-time guards employed to cover all the nuclear power plants in America, giving an average of only 80 per power plant, of whom not more than 60 and probably even less would be on duty on any given shift.
The magazine also reported that the guard towers around the plants are called "iron coffins" by the guards who man them and that they could not repel even a .50-caliber rifle bullet.
The appeal of the weapon is that it would permit security guards in nuclear power stations and other facilities to fire more freely against assailants who had penetrated into the plant without having to worry that stray bullets would smash crucial pieces of machinery.
Terrorists who had penetrated into such installations would not be worried about inflicting such damage and would therefore have the potential advantage in any shoot-out.
The proposed new weapons being developed have been designated Active Denial Technology (ADT). And they are an emerging class of non-lethal weaponry using 95GHz millimeter-wave directed energy, vnu.com said.
According to the DoE, the technology is capable of rapidly heating human skin to a pain level that has been demonstrated as "very effective at repelling people" without apparently burning the skin or causing other secondary effects.
ADT emits a 95GHz non-ionizing electromagnetic beam of energy that penetrates approximately 1/64 of an inch into human skin tissue, where nerve receptors are concentrated.
Within seconds, the beam will heat the exposed skin tissue to a level where intolerable pain is experienced and natural defense mechanisms take over. This intense heating sensation stops only if the individual moves out of the beam's path or the beam is turned of, vnu.com said.
The sensation caused by the system has been described by test subjects as feeling like touching a hot frying pan or the intense radiant heat from a fire. Burn injury is prevented by limiting the beam's intensity and duration, the web-site said.
Sandia National Laboratories, a Nuclear Security Administration lab, will investigate how the technology could be used on adversaries by developing a small ADT system to protect U.S. nuclear sites.
However, the project still faces many technical challenges, so Sandia has launched partnerships with the Raytheon Corporation and the Air Force Research Laboratory as both organizations have significant experience with earlier ADT developments, vnu.com said.
The idea of developing energy-directed hand-weapons to be able to inflict non-lethal and non-destructive damage in guarding technologically complex installations is not a new one.
In the mid 1990s the US Air Force funded development of an ADT prototype which resulted in several ongoing projects, such as the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate's Vehicle Mounted Active Denial System Force Transformation's project Sheriff program, vnu.com said.
In 2004, Sandia conducted simulations of how the smaller ADT system might be used and how it would perform against "adversary attack scenarios" within a nuclear facility using the Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation software modeling tool.
"Recently there has been significant progress with this project," said Willy Morse, Sandia's principal investigator told vnu.com.
"On 5 May we took acceptance of a prototype system built by Raytheon's Advanced Electromagnetic Technologies center in partnership with CPI and Malibu Research. Initial characterization and performance tests were completed at the end of May."
The web-site said that a second-generation small-size ADT system is expected to be fielded at several DoE nuclear facilities as early as 2008.
The Department of Defense has stated that it has successfully experimented with millimeter wave "human effectiveness testing" since 2001, and that it has demonstrated ADT is both effective and safe without any long-term effects.
The effects of the new technology promise to be far-reaching. It could offer reliable non-lethal force weapons that would prove invaluable in prison security, riot control and even to beat cops.
But although the weapons could prove a valuable adjunct to guards in nuclear and other power-generating installations, they would solve only a fraction of the challenges that federal agencies charged with protecting such institutions face.
Time magazine reported that many security experts believe U.S. nuclear power stations currently lack the number of guards, fire-power and defensive systems to repel determined attempts to storm them and wreck their operating systems in order to provoke catastrophic core meltdowns by as few as 19 or 20 terrorists.
Such attempts are certainly conceptually feasible: That was the size of the group that al-Qaida's Mohammed Atta led when they highjacked the airliners that crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon killing 2,800 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
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