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Neutrino Detector Developed to Track Nuclear Activity
October 13, 2017

Nuclear proliferation by countries considered by the international community to pose threats to world peace, commonly referred to as rouge nations, has been and continues to be a primary source of concern in a world where political unrest and state-sponsored terrorism have become the norm.

In efforts to monitor such activities, United Nations’ regulators have been met with almost universal denial of access, outright deceit in reporting, and continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction despite repeated denials of such efforts.

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. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

With funding provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Virginia Tech, including the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, researchers at the Virginia Tech College of Science are now 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. 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 College of Science Department of Physics.

Known as MiniCHANDLER, the cube is an early prototype — roughly a two-foot cube, with an active volume weighing 175 pounds — but Prof. Link and his team say with enough data collected during several months of testing at North Anna, it could soon justify larger detectors operated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at facilities around the world.

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, Prof. 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 Prof. Link and his team are confident they can extract a signal solely from the reactor neutrino output.

In addition to tracking plutonium, the box has a scientific mission as well: 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, Prof. 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,” Prof. 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.

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