ISU Headlines

ISU Idaho Accelerator Center activities in South Korea highlight its international expertise in weapons detection

Posted July 9, 2012

Recent collaborations between the South Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Idaho State University Idaho Accelerator Center underscore how, over the last 15 to 20 years, the IAC has become the "world’s go-to" facility for experts around the world who want to use atomic accelerators for the non-destructive detection of contraband.

"The Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute is trying to get into the business of developing accelerators for contraband detection," said Frank Harmon, senior scientist and former director of the IAC. “During the last year, South Korean scientists have been visiting our facilities and we’ve been sending our personnel over there.”

Accelerators are machines that speed up sub-atomic particles and elementary particles such as electrons and protons.  The IAC and its partners, including the Idaho National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and private companies, have developed portable accelerators that shoot radiation into cargo containers that can detect the presence of radioactive materials. The use of the accelerators is non-destructive. The IAC has its Inspection Technology Research and Development Laboratory at the Pocatello airport where the use of portable accelerators for detecting nuclear materials can be demonstrated.  

The IAC, which annually attracts between $5 and $8 million in external grant funding (while only receiving about $100,000 from the state of Idaho for operational funding), has sent three of its people over to South Korea to help oversee the set up and operation of a new accelerator. The IAC personnel who have worked on the South Korean project include Kevin Folkman, head accelerator engineer, Chad O’Neill, accelerator operations supervisor, and Brian Berls, pulse power engineer.

Portable accelerators like the ones developed at the IAC can also be used for the non-destructive detection of nuclear materials that must be verified to satisfy new international treaties. Another use for this type of accelerator is for “attribution” if a nuclear weapon is detonated: nuclear materials have a unique “footprint” accelerators can detect, and then the source of the nuclear material used in a weapon can be traced.

"We're seeing a lot more excitement both nationally and internationally, about the use of portable accelerators for large-scale container examination," Harmon said. "This could lead to more collaborations and consultations like the kind we're now engaged in with the South Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute."

The IAC's expertise in accelerator and nuclear science has been recognized in another way in South Korea. For the last three years the IAC's Valeriia Straovoitova has been teaching at the World Nuclear University’s School on Radiation Technologies held in Korea.The WNU Coordinating Centre in London organizes the event that is hosted by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety.

Straovoitova is an ISU research assistant professor and the project leader of the activation analysis and radioisotope research programs at the IAC. She is developing techniques for creating active isotopes and methods to analyze materials using these techniques.  She is also working on production of medical isotopes for treatment and diagnosis of diseases, another expertise at the IAC.

"Dr. Straovoitova's participation in a school of this caliber speaks highly of the quality of scientists and technicians we have at the IAC," Harmon said.

More information on the IAC is available online at