Virginia Tech device expected to track nuclear activity by rogue nations

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) A new device, created in Virginia, is said to be able to detect nuclear activity, even in rogue countries that are not trusted with that technology.

Photo from Virginia Tech

It's expected to prevent the development of nuclear weapons that could be dangerous for the U.S.

The years-long project, dubbed CHANDLER, centers on a high-tech box full of luminescent plastic cubes stacked atop one another

The technology behind this surrounds what's called neutrinos. They're particles, like protons or electrons, but can pass through the walls of a nuclear reactor to be tested.

Created in large amounts during plant operation, the cast-off neutrinos that escape the reactor cannot be shielded or disguised, thus creating a foolproof tracking system for regulators.

Researchers at the Virginia Tech College of Science said neutrinos can tell them how much plutonium is inside a nuclear reactor, as a certain level is considered dangerous and only used to make weapons.

Patrick Huber, a Professor of Physics on the projected explained, "Basically we're looking at the colors of the neutrino, and in that way we can say there's plutonium in the reactor or not."

Plutonium is the key ingredient in nuclear weapons and is tracked by United Nations regulators in all nations that are part of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

The prototype is at Dominion Power's North Anna Nuclear Generating Station near Richmond. But the plan would be to stretch the detection to every country in the world.

"You would put one of these next to each reactor you want to survey, and basically you have to understand that right now the International Atomic Energy Agency is inspecting about 400 reactors around the globe," Huber said.

By having science to back up which reactors have too high levels of plutonium, there would be safer ways than the world currently uses.

Johnathan Link is a Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Neutrino Physics.

He said, "We can actually replace the processes where we have to trust what people are telling us about how they're producing and what they're doing with the spent nuclear fuel, and instead we can track for ourselves."

Link believes rogue nations that balk at having to submit to inspections would have no reason to refuse such a small, unobtrusive device.

He also said this kind of technology would have been useful in the past when dealing with North Korea, which has reportedly been testing nuclear weapons.

"If a country like North Korea, which we've had these issues with, wants to develop nuclear technology in a peaceful way, right now we would never trust them to do that and we would work very hard to try and make sure that they didn't have any working reactors in their country," Link said. "If they were to enter into an agreement and agree to use this kind of technology, it might be much easier for us to trust them in the future."

The prototype is roughly a two-foot that weighs about 175 pounds, costing about $250,000 to make, funded by Virginia Tech and the National Science Foundation.

The actual detectors will cost about $2 million a piece.

The researchers will demonstrate what they have now and hopefully get funding to build the real thing and put them around the world.

The light-tight, high-tech CHANDLER box is packed with hundreds of small wavelength-shifting plastic scintillator cubes — they appear green in natural light — that carry the chore of detecting neutrinos emitting from a nearby reactor. When a neutrino interacts in the cube, it creates a small flash of light that can be recorded and tracked. The detection of light can then be sent remotely to researchers either nearby or hundreds of miles away, according to initial research plans by Link and his team.

“The whole problem with nuclear inspections is you have to know what is happening at all times to make this calculation,” Huber said. “You need continuity of knowledge to make conclusions. But the stream of data from a reactor can be interrupted because of technical malfunction or diplomatic reasons. With antineutrino detection, you don’t have to know all that. It’s based simply on the detection of neutrinos.”

Anna Erickson is an assistant professor of  the Nuclear and  Radiological  Engineering  Program  at Georgia Tech, where she researches nuclear reactor design and  nuclear detection  with a focus on the needs for proliferation-resistant nuclear power.  She is not involved with the CHANDLER project, but said the neutrino project by Virginia Tech could set a new standard for antineutrino detectors, a field stalled by tricky technology, including the sizes of previous devices too large for easy assembly, transport, and setup.  Previous detectors used liquid scintillators, rather than solid plastic as does CHANDLER.

“This could open  a  new  path for antineutrino-based reactor monitoring  technology,” she said.

The science is about more than just nuclear weapons though.

The box can search for a possible fourth type of neutrino, known as sterile neutrino, which is the focus of a long-running scientific mystery story.

“If a sterile neutrino exists and were to be discovered by us, that would be a paradigm-shifting discovery in particle physics whose impact cannot be overstated,” Link said, adding that several small-scale experiments are now taking data or preparing to take data in the near future to address the mystery of sterile neutrinos. “The CHANDLER detector represents a significant improvement in the state-of-the-art, and if the funding comes through we may still have a chance to compete for a discovery.”

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