Virginia Tech researchers have developed a tracking device to keep rogue nations from obtaining bomb-grade material from nuclear reactors.
Virginia Tech’s Director of the Center for Neutrino Physics, Jonathan Link, says the same nuclear reactor that produces electricity, can also produce plutonium for bombs, and a rogue nation like Iran might do it undetected. “Some countries have managed to launch illicit weapons programs, despite the inspections,” said Link.
His neutrino detector box of luminescent plastic tubes and detectors can literally see through concrete and steel to determine what is really happening inside a reactor. Link says, “It is a device that is especially designed to detect neutrinos coming out of nuclear reactor. But the interesting thing about neutrinos is, because they don’t interact much, they come straight out of that reactor core and they are not bothered by any of the material put in there to shield people, to protect human life and so forth coming from the other stuff in that reactor. So we can get information out of that reactor that is straight from the nuclear reactions themselves without anything messing with it in between, if we look at those neutrinos.”
There are 449 reactors in 31 countries around the world producing electricity. They are bound by treaties and international regulations to keep it clean, but paperwork and promises don’t always reveal what is really going on.
“What we are trying to do is to create an even stronger way of recording and tracking that plutonium that then would allow us to see if a country, like perhaps Iran or North Korea, that was trying to operate a nuclear reactor in supposedly a peaceful way but was secretly diverting their plutonium. Then we would see that in the neutrino flux, we would see that the neutrinos looked like there was more or less plutonium than they claimed there was in the reactor core,” added Link.
VA Tech’s prototype neutrino detector has just been parked in a trailer next to Dominion Power’s North Anna reactor, to see how well it works. If successful, it could be used all over the world to assure compliance in existing plants and in 45 more countries eager to obtain nuclear reactors.
“We believe, that this technology may make it easier to spread nuclear technology around the world to countries that maybe we would be less inclined to trust,” said Link.