Antineutrino detectors could aid non-proliferation

Aug 12, 2014
Antineutrino detectors could aid non-proliferation
Patrick Huber

Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and even in the fictional world of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" look to subatomic particles called neutrinos to answer the big questions about the universe.

Now, a group of scientists led by a professor at Virginia Tech are asking whether the neutrino could provide the world with clues about nuclear proliferation in Iran and other political hotspots. Neutrinos are produced by the decay of radioactive elements, and nuclear reactors produce large amounts of neutrinos that cannot be shielded or disguised, which could help regulatory agencies monitor plutonium production.

Measuring neutrino emissions allows scientists to infer the plutonium content of a reactor from outside the building, according to a letter due to be released in the Physical Letters Review written by Patrick Huber, an associate professor of physics and a member of the Center for Neutrino Physics at Virginia Tech, with Thomas Shea, a 20-year veteran of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and graduate students Eric Christensen of Westminster, Maryland, a doctoral student in physics, and Patrick Jaffke of Arlington, Virginia, a in physics and a master's student in nuclear engineering.

"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 said. "Neutrino monitoring is non-intrusive and doesn't rely on a continuous history of reactor operations."

Monitoring antineutrinos— akin to the neutrino, except they spin in a different direction—also could help distinguish varying levels of fuel enrichment.

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.

Antineutrino detectors can provide the agency with high-level monitoring not currently offered by any other technique, the researchers say. This monitoring is based on the spectrum of antineutrinos produced by fission of uranium-235, plutonium-239, uranium-238, and plutonium-241, where the isotopes produce neutrinos with a lower average energy.

The paper is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between Huber's group at Virginia Tech's College of Science and Shea, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment at Virginia Tech.

For being such tiny particles, neutrinos have made big headlines.  They travel at about the speed of light, unimpeded by electromagnetism and strong nuclear forces that affect other particles. Studying them has provided insight into Albert Einstein's theory of the Standard Model of particle physics and has astronomical information from the far reaches of the universe.

Huber's recent interview on the subject is available at WVTF public radio.

Explore further: Using antineutrinos to monitor nuclear reactors

Related Stories

Using antineutrinos to monitor nuclear reactors

Apr 24, 2014

When monitoring nuclear reactors, the International Atomic Energy Agency has to rely on input given by the operators. In the future, antineutrino detectors may provide an additional option for monitoring. ...

Physics panel to feds: Beam us up some neutrinos (Update)

May 22, 2014

The U.S. should build a billion-dollar project to beam ghostlike subatomic particles 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) underground west from Chicago to the high plains state of South Dakota, a committee of experts ...

NEMO closes in on neutrino mass

Jun 20, 2014

The NEMO (Neutrino Ettore Majorana Observatory) experiment, whose goal was to elucidate the nature of neutrinos and measure their mass, yielded very positive results. The product of an extensive international ...

Recommended for you

Super sensitive measurement of magnetic fields

42 minutes ago

There are electrical signals in the nervous system, the brain and throughout the human body and there are tiny magnetic fields associated with these signals that could be important for medical science. Researchers ...

New idea for Dyson sphere proposed

1 hour ago

(—A pair of Turkish space scientists with Bogazici University has proposed that researchers looking for the existence of Dyson spheres might be looking at the wrong objects. İbrahim Semiz and ...

Turning back time by controlling magnetic interactions

2 hours ago

In many materials, macroscopic magnetic properties emerge when microscopically small magnets align in a fixed pattern throughout the whole solid. In a publication in Nature Communications, Johan Mentink, Karste ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.