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Can antimatter figure in nuclear geopolitics?

27 July 2015
The Iran nuclear deal begins drawing media attention to R&D for portable antineutrino detectors.

The nuclear deal with Iran “is based on verification, not trust,” declared US secretary of state John Kerry and energy secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist. Their recent Washington Post op-ed also emphasized that to “preclude cheating, international inspectors will have unprecedented access.” Cheating? Progress in physics-based R&D has led to the 20 July headline “How antimatter could stop Iran from cheating on the nuclear deal.”

That headline for a piece about antineutrino detectors being developed for nuclear monitoring appeared in the digital publication Defense One, which professes to deliver “news, breaking analysis and ideas on the topics and trends that will define the future of US defense and national security.” A posting along the same lines had appeared two days earlier on Slashdot. Then on 23 July, the widely read, two-decade-old technoscience-oriented publication Wired posted “Obscure particle could keep Iran honest on its nuclear deal.”

Wired emphasized that detecting antineutrinos is hard. If you shot them “through 6 trillion miles of lead shielding,” the article explained, “half of them would pass right through, like ghosts.” It cited the July 2014 Physical Review Letters (PRL) paper “Antineutrino monitoring for heavy water reactors,” which was accompanied by the American Physical Society (APS) explanatory write-up “Nuclear monitoring with antineutrinos: A system to monitor a nuclear reactor for possible diversion of weapons material would use an antineutrino detector parked close to the facility.”

Concerning verification vs. trust, the write-up emphasized that antineutrino detectors could overcome problems inherent in monitoring under adversarial circumstances. It began by summarizing:

Nuclear power plants can produce plutonium for weapons, so international inspectors would like a system that could tell from the outside whether material has been removed from a reactor. In Physical Review Letters, researchers describe a system that could monitor the state of the reactor core by detecting the antineutrinos it emits. The system would require improvements beyond today’s detector technology, but experts say that such advances could be available in several years.

APS also explained:

Such a system would include a large amount of a scintillator material such as mineral oil or plastic. A high-energy antineutrino (greater than 1.8 mega-electron-volts) striking a proton in the scintillator would produce a positron (antielectron) and a neutron, with most of the kinetic energy in the positron. The system would measure the positron’s energy based on the flashes of light it produces as it decelerates in the scintillator.

The general media are only just now beginning to notice antineutrino-detector R&D, but IEEE Spectrum has been watching for more than seven years. In April 2008, it published “Antineutrino detector could spot atom bomb cheats: Ghostly particles tell power levels and plutonium stock.” Three years later, it was “'Ghost particle' detectors closer to preventing nuclear proliferation: Signs of the elusive antineutrino could keep nuclear reactors in line.” Earlier this month, it was “Antineutrino detectors could be key to monitoring Iran’s nuclear program,” an article that emphasized the verification-not-trust issue.

Citing one of the PRL authors—Patrick Huber of Virginia Tech’s Center for Neutrino Physics—it summed things up: “Compared to the cameras, seals, and radiation detectors that the IAEA uses to monitor reactors today, antineutrino detectors offer a safe, foolproof, compact, non-intrusive, and potentially low-cost alternative.” It also quoted Huber: “Less than two years from now, you should have at least one maybe several types of antineutrino detector technologies that would work as nuclear safeguard detectors.”

This week at National Public Radio’s website for the weekly broadcast Science Friday, host Ira Flatow continued on an old theme of his: advocacy of a presidential science debate. No doubt Secretary Moniz has well-informed views on antineutrino detectors for nuclear monitoring. Might any of the presidential candidates?


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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