Details of the emerging technology were revealed during a lecture at the Health Protection Agency’s annual conference at the University of Warwick.

“If there was a major radiological or nuclear event the hospitals in this country could be overwhelmed,” said Dr Kai Rothkamm, head of Cytogenetics & Biomarkers at the HPA.

“This work is about enabling scientists to carry out accurate and rapid analysis of samples so that clinicians can then use the information in treatment – as well as reassuring those who are not affected.”

Current methods involve scientists taking blood samples, culturing white blood cells for two days, and analysing them to detect chromosomal abnormalities. But it is a slow and complex process. Existing UK lab facilities could handle about 100 samples in a week.

The new technology being worked on could test about 30 blood samples in an hour for exposure to critically high levels of radiation. If more time was available for analysis, it could also detect radiation down to the level of just a few millisieverts (mSv) although only if used within a few hours after the exposure. The average person in the UK is exposed to 2.2mSv of radiation from natural sources every year.

The estimate of the radiation dose received by the patient would then allow frontline medics to determine what kind of treatment would be best.

For now the research team behind the technology has prototype devices and is developing software for testing. But it’s hoped when complete the equipment could fit inside a suitcase.