Detector Tells if Reactor is Naughty or Nice

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As a number of nations (Iran, Egypt, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Venezuela, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, etc.) start looking at nuclear programs for what they claim are legitimate energy needs, doubts arise over whether their nuclear reactors are intended for energy or weapons production. A clear answer may be in sight: Research conducted by physicists and nuclear engineers at Oregon State University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory has yielded a device that potentially could allow independent assessment of whether a reactor is being used for peaceful or military means.

The antineutrino detector operates by measuring the number of antineutrinos — minute packages of subatomic energy that are products of nuclear decay — emitted by a nuclear reactor. The process, which was detailed in the April 2008 edition of the Journal of Applied Physics, has been hailed as both a feat of nuclear engineering and a valuable nonproliferation tool.

The detector would be particularly effective since it could be used to determine the amount of fissile material — plutonium and uranium — used and created by a nuclear reactor in the production of electricity, and could monitor the reactor to ensure that the established amount remained stable.

Most enticing is that the detector cannot be blocked from obtaining antineutrino information, which means that the device could be used with or without the support of the reactor's operators. Given the political difficulties in assessing, say, Iran's nuclear intentions, this could be a potent arrow in the diplomatic quiver — assuming both that the amount of fissile material going in was known and that the detector could be placed near the reactor.

The idea that an independent arbiter could use the detector to measure the status of a reactor — whether or not the operator approves — is an alluring one, and, as associate professor Todd Palmer said in a release from Oregon State University, the relevance of the tool lies in its ability to "give us more confidence that nuclear reactors are being appropriately used for energy production."

Though improvements on the prototype detectors currently in use in San Diego will be necessary, the future of the detector looks bright. Since it can readily detect if a reactor is producing or diverting excess fissile material, it could mean that potentially anyone could have information on whether or not a reactor is producing weapons — and as Palmer said, "That's a pretty strong deterrent to inappropriate uses of nuclear power reactors."