Antineutrino: Nuclear proliferation proxy

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  • Published: Aug 15, 2014
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Atomic
thumbnail image: Antineutrino: Nuclear proliferation proxy

Nuclear revelations

US scientists are looking to one of the tiniest of subatomic particles, the antineutrino, to determine whether this seemingly nondescript entity might reveal clues about illicit nuclear activity in political hotspots around the globe. Credit: Nanking2012/Wikipedia LHC neutrino thumbnail image c/o CERN

US scientists are looking to one of the tiniest of subatomic particles, the antineutrino, to determine whether this seemingly nondescript entity might reveal clues about illicit nuclear activity in political hotspots around the globe.

The neutrino is an electrically neutral, weakly interacting subatomic particle of such tiny mass that their presence is barely detectable despite the fact that vast numbers reach the earth from the sun and outer space continuously and simply pass straight through. Approximately 65 billion solar neutrinos impinge on and pass through every square centimetre of the Earth's surface perpendicular to the direction of the Sun every second. However, they can be detected with specialist equipment and given that they are also a byproduct of radioactive decay and nuclear reactions they can act as a proxy for detecting nuclear activity, such as the firing up of a nuclear power station, activity in a nuclear processing plant making plutonium or the detonation of a nuclear weapon. The very weak interactions of neutrinos means that their emissions cannot be shielded or disguised from outside observers.

Modified detector

Patrick Huber, a member of the Center for Neutrino Physics at Virginia Tech and colleagues Eric Christensen, Patrick Jaffke and Thomas Shea, formerly with the International Atomic Energy Agency consultant based in Austria, have explained how measurements of neutrino emissions could be used to infer the plutonium content of a reactor from outside the building. Writing in the journal Physical Letters Review, the team gives details of how current instrumentation might be modified readily for such a task, it would allow the authorities to observe activities under a new nuclear non-proliferation agreement in Iran, for instance.

“By making moderate improvements in existing neutrino-detector technology, we can fit a detector system into a standard 20-foot shipping container to monitor the Iranian heavy water reactor at Arak as part of a non-proliferation measure,” Huber explains. “Neutrino monitoring is non-intrusive and doesn’t rely on a continuous history of reactor operations.” The instrument could focus specifically on monitoring antineutrinos. Their presence could be used to discern different levels of fuel enrichment taking place in the facility. The Iranian 40 megawatt heavy water reactor at Arak has a design which is ideal for plutonium production for nuclear weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency needs to be able to verify whether operations at the facility are for peaceful purposes.

Safeguards

The researchers explain that antineutrino detectors could provide the IAEA with data not available using any other approach. The data provides a spectrum of antineutrinos produced by fission of uranium-235, plutonium-239, uranium-238, and plutonium-241, the plutonium isotopes produce neutrinos with a lower average energy. The data could reveal the profile of long-lived fission products and so also reveal when the reactor is shut down. "These capabilities would not require a complete reactor operational history and could provide a means to reestablish continuity of knowledge in safeguards conclusions should this become necessary," the team concludes."

Related Links

Phys Rev Lett, 2014, 113, 042503: "Antineutrino Monitoring for Heavy Water Reactors"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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