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Gov’t Shows Off High-Tech Devices

March 10, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A laser that detects deadly chemicals in a closed bottle. Robotic bugs capable of crawling into buildings to find bombs. A device that can monitor the heartbeat of a terrorist hiding in a truck.

They’re all part of an array of new, high-tech wizardry that is supposed to make it easier to detect nuclear, chemical or biological threats and thwart the development and smuggling of weapons of mass destruction.

Unveiled Monday by the Energy Department at a demonstration on Capitol Hill, officials said most of the technology already is in use, although in some cases only on a limited basis.

Energy Secretary Federico Pena, in remarks opening the exhibit, said the ``unusual and extraordinary threat″ posed by weapons of mass destruction _ nuclear, chemical or biological _ requires renewed emphasis on developing sophisticated detection devices.

``It takes only plutonium the size of a Coke can to make a nuclear weapon,″ said Pena. ``And this is only part of the threat that we face. The ease of access to chemical and biological weapons is alarming.″

On his belt Pena wore a device the size of a pager that detects the presence of radioactive material. Security officers at some major airports already are using the devices. They’re so sensitive that they trigger an alarm even when near a passenger who has undergone recent radiation medical treatments such as a thyroid exam.

Throughout the room were displays of other high-tech devices developed to expose nuclear smugglers, detect weapons of mass destruction, and stop intruders from getting into sensitive weapons facilities.

At one booth, Leo Labaj of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory showed off the ``heartbeat monitor″ _ a device that can discern the vibration given off from a beating heart even if the person is hiding inside a tractor-trailer.

Labaj said the device monitors vibrations so faint that it can detect a human no matter how still the person remains. ``You can’t spoof it unless you’re dead,″ he says.

So far, the monitor is being used at a half dozen prisons, says Labaj. But Pena says its perfect for detecting potential terrorists trying to get into nuclear weapons sites.

``It would make it virtually impossible for a terrorist to enter a site by hiding in a vehicle,″ said Pena, adding that it’s sensitive enough to find a mouse in a loaded garbage truck.

The robotic bugs, technically called ``biomorphic robots″ and their cousins, the robotic snake and robotic butterfly, also caught people’s attention.

Mark Tilden, an engineer from Los Alamos National Laboratory, had the ``bugs″ _ some a few inches long and powered by solar cells _ crawling on a table. He explained that they can be used in swarms and even placed down pipes into buildings to detect explosives. Even if partially destroyed, they’ll keep on crawling in environment’s that might be deadly for humans, he explained.

Some other high-tech devices on display included:

_A laser that, by sending a beam through a bottle, can analyze the molecular structure of the chemical contents and determine within minutes whether it is dangerous.

_A pocket ``sniffer″ that can be used to detect and analyze deadly biological agents within hours at the scene, instead of the days it can take for laboratory tests.

_A ``multispectral thermal imager″ that, from a satellite 360 miles in space, analyzes light waves from a factory or power plant and can determine unusually high energy uses or detect releases of certain chemicals. Other versions of the equipment can be used from aircraft.

_Various devices, including hand-held detectors, that can pinpoint nuclear material even when hidden in shielded, sealed containers.

Some 30 items were touted by the department in displays and colorful fact sheets. But Pena said for security reasons he’s not giving away all of the government’s goodies. ``We’re not going to make public all of the technology that we have,″ he said.

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