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  • 2017-07-25 14:35:00
  • Article ID: 678416

Physics Researchers Eye Experimental Box as Key to Tracking Nuclear Activity by Rogue Nations

The box would detect subatomic particles known as neutrinos produced by a rogue nation's nuclear reactor, which can be used to track the amount of plutonium produced in the reactor core.

  • Credit: Virginia Tech

    Virginia Tech Professor Jonathan Link poses with the Mobile Neutrino Lab at the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station, near Mineral, Virginia. A high-tech box inside the cooled trailer is designed to detect subatomic particles known as neutrinos produced by the facility's reactor.

  • Credit: Virginia Tech

    Inside this neutrino detector, at right, are dozens of luminescent plastic cubes stacked atop one another that together can detect subatomic particles known as neutrinos produced by a reactor.

  • Credit: Virginia Tech

    The Virginia Tech Mobile Neutrino Lab has been placed outside the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in rural Mineral, Virginia. Dominion Power is allowing Virginia Tech researchers to carry out this months-long experiment, years in the planning.

Researchers at the Virginia Tech College of Science are carrying out a research project at Dominion Power’s North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Virginia that could lead to a new turning point in how the United Nations tracks rogue nations that seek nuclear power.

The years-long project centers on a high-tech box full of luminescent plastic cubes stacked atop one another that can be placed just outside a nuclear reactor operated by, say, Iran. The box would detect subatomic particles known as neutrinos produced by the reactor, which can be used to track the amount of plutonium produced in the reactor core.

It is plutonium — the key ingredient in nuclear weapons — that U.N. regulators seek to track in all nations that are party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, but particularly in nations seen as volatile. The Virginia Tech team calls the box “tamper proof” and says if successful, can all but eliminate instances of falsified paperwork or uneasy inspection visits.

“If they want a nuclear reactor, we can let them build it and detect its activity with a minimal impact on its operations,” said Jonathan Link, a professor in the Department of Physics, part of the College of Science. Link views nuclear energy as an important part of a new worldwide low-carbon future that nevertheless requires careful oversight from all participating nations to ensure its safety.

Link believes rogue nations that balk at having to submit to inspections would have no reason to refuse such a small, unobtrusive device. The cube is an early prototype — roughly a two-foot cube, with an active volume weighing 175 pounds — but Link and his team say with enough data collected during several months of testing at North Anna, it could soon justify to larger detectors operated by the International Atomic Energy Agency at facilities around the world.

Dubbed CHANDLER, this project is part of Virginia Tech’s Center for Neutrino Physics, of which Link is director. Together with fellow physics faculty and center members Patrick Huber and Camillo Mariani, he predicts the current detector, a prototype known as MiniCHANDLER, will demonstrate the potential for a future larger detector weighing in at a few tons. The cube now sits just at the base of the concrete containment building of North Anna’s reactor 2, inside a small trailer dubbed the Mobile Neutrino Lab that contains a rack full of processors, all cooled by two air-conditioning units. The trailer will stay at North Anna for several months. On a recent trip, Link set the trailer up, starting data collection, with the ability to beam data wirelessly to Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus.

The North Anna Nuclear Generating Station is located near Mineral, Virginia, roughly 100 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

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, Link said. There is a challenge in separating neutrinos created by the reactor from everyday radioactive “noise” from the ground or raining down from energetic cosmic particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere, but Link and his team are confident they can extract a signal solely from the reactor neutrino output. 

Up until now, neutrinos produced during nuclear fission could not be detected except with a massive machine the size of a house or built very close to the reactor, near impossible to deploy in a rogue nation.

How does the box work? If your career is nuclear physics, it’s easy. If not, well, it’s complicated. Roughly: The light-tight, high-tech 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 challenge of working detectors around the globe are many. In addition to perfecting the technology itself, getting rogue nations to agree to placement "can be as much  of a challenge as advancing the technology itself," Erickson said.

The box has a scientific mission, too: searching for a possible fourth type of neutrino, known as a sterile neutrino. The sterile neutrino is the focus of a long-running scientific mystery story. Several experiments have identified weak hints for a sterile neutrino while other experiments were inconclusive, Link said.

“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.” 

Funding for the CHANDLER project has come from the National Science Foundation and Virginia Tech, including the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

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Rutgers Scientists Discover 'Legos of Life'

Rutgers scientists have found the "Legos of life" - four core chemical structures that can be stacked together to build the myriad proteins inside every organism - after smashing and dissecting nearly 10,000 proteins to understand their component parts. The four building blocks make energy available for humans and all other living organisms, according to a study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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On the Rebound

New research from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and Stanford University has found that palladium nanoparticles can repair atomic dislocations in their crystal structure, potentially leading to other advances in material science.

Coupling Experiments to Theory to Build a Better Battery

A Berkeley Lab-led team of researchers has reported that a new lithium-sulfur battery component allows a doubling in capacity compared to a conventional lithium-sulfur battery, even after more than 100 charge cycles.

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Theoretical Physicist Elena Belova Named to Editorial Board of Physics of Plasmas

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Superconducting X-Ray Laser Takes Shape in Silicon Valley

An area known for high-tech gadgets and innovation will soon be home to an advanced superconducting X-ray laser that stretches 3 miles in length, built by a collaboration of national laboratories. On January 19, the first section of the machine's new accelerator arrived by truck at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park after a cross-country journey that began in Batavia, Illinois, at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Kelsey Stoerzinger Earns Young Investigator Lectureship

Kelsey Stoerzinger, Pauling Fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is one of the 2018 Caltech Young Investigator Lecturers in Engineering and Applied Physics.

North Dakota State University Joins Two National Distributed Computing Groups

The NDSU Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology (CCAST) joins OSG (Open Science Grid) and XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment).

DOE Announces Funding for New HPC4Manufacturing Industry Projects

The Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) today announced the funding of $1.87 million for seven new industry projects under an ongoing initiative designed to utilize DOE's high-performance computing (HPC) resources and expertise to advance U.S. manufacturing and clean energy technologies.

DOE Announces First Awardees for New HPC4Materials for Severe Environments Program

The Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy (FE) today announced the funding of $450,000 for the first two private-public partnerships under a brand-new initiative aimed at discovering, designing and scaling up production of novel materials for severe environments.

Two Argonne Scientists Recognized for a Decade of Breakthroughs

Two scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have been named to the Web of Science's Highly Cited List of 2017, ranking in the top 1 percent of their peers by citations and subject area. Materials Scientist Khalil Amine and Energy and Environmental Policy Scientist David Streets say they are thrilled to see their work -- and the laboratory -- recognized in such a way.

Argonne Welcomes Department of Energy Secretary Perry

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Argonne National Laboratory yesterday, getting a first-hand view of the multifaceted and interdisciplinary research program laboratory of the Department.

Argonne names John Quintana Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and COO

John Quintana has been named Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

Developing Next-Generation Sensing Technologies

Recently, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced $20 million in funding for 15 projects that will develop a new class of sensor systems to enable significant energy savings via reduced demand for heating and cooling in residential and commercial buildings.


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Exploring Past, Present, and Future Water Availability Regionally, Globally

New open-source software simulates river and runoff resources.

Arctic Photosynthetic Capacity and Carbon Dioxide Assimilation Underestimated by Terrestrial Biosphere Models

New measurements offer data vital to projecting plant response to environmental changes.

DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

Superconducting Tokamaks Are Standing Tall

Plasma physicists significantly improve the vertical stability of a Korean fusion device.

Graphene Flexes Its Muscle

Crumpling reduces rigidity in an otherwise stiff material, making it less prone to catastrophic failure.

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New approach offers data across species, sites, and canopies, providing insights into carbon uptake by forests.

What's the Noise Eating Quantum Bits?

The magnetic noise caused by adsorbed oxygen molecules is "eating at" the phase stability of quantum bits, mitigating the noise is vital for future quantum computers.

Rewritable Wires Could Mean No More Obsolete Circuitry

An electric field switches the conductivity on and off in atomic-scale channels, which could allow for upgrades at will.

Filtering Water Better than Nature

Water passes through human-made straws faster than the "gold standard" protein, allowing us to filter seawater.

Machine Learning Provides a Bridge to the Texture of the Quantum World

Machine learning and neural networks are the foundation of artificial intelligence and image recognition, but now they offer a bridge to see and recognize exotic insulating phases in quantum materials.


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