Remote reactor monitoring project launched

28 March 2018

An international multi-laboratory and university collaboration has been launched to develop detection hardware and algorithms to improve non-proliferation detector capabilities for remote monitoring of nuclear reactors. Its developers say the initial project will be the first demonstration of remote monitoring of individual reactor operations at a significant distance, using scalable water-based technology. 

The initiative - known as the Advanced Instrumentation Testbed (AIT) - is sponsored by the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. The AIT consortium consists of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Brookhaven National Laboratory, the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, and nine US and British universities.

Watchman cutaway - 250 (SNL)
A cutaway view of the Watchman antineutrino detector (Image: Jim Brennan/Sandia National Laboratory)

LLNL physicist and AIT principal investigator Adam Bernstein said: "Fission in nuclear reactors generates heat, which is used to pressurise or boil water to turn turbines for electricity generation. Our goal is to harness a largely neglected aspect of the fission process for practical purposes. This very same fission process results in the emission of enormous numbers of highly penetrating particles known as antineutrinos. In our testbed, we will demonstrate the capability to detect the operations of nuclear reactors at significant distances, using antineutrino emissions."

Subject to final approval by contributing stakeholders, including the mine authorities, the AIT will be constructed at the site of the Boulby Underground Laboratory. This is an existing UK government-funded deep underground science facility operating in the working Boulby potash, polyhalite and salt mine on the northeast cost of England. The Watchman (for Water Cherenkov Monitor for Anti-Neutrinos) detector - measuring some 16 meters in height and 16m in diameter - will be located 100m below ground. The detector will contain 3500 tonnes of liquid, mostly water mixed with the element gadolinium. It will be tuned to detect interactions of antineutrinos emitted from a reactor at the Hartlepool nuclear power plant, which is 25 kilometers away. It is scheduled to begin operating around 2023.

The AIT will also permit deployment of numerous advanced technologies that are relevant for remote reactor monitoring and detection, including water-based liquid scintillators, fast photo-sensors, light concentrators and others.

"This demonstration will lay the groundwork for larger detectors that would be required to monitor or discover small reactors at distances of up to several hundred kilometers," Bernstein said. This would help nations track and restrict the production of fissile materials that can be used in nuclear weapons.

"In the long term, Watchman-style water-based detectors can give us new insights into the mysterious properties of neutrinos, and even help us resolve the long-standing mystery of the great disparity between the amount of matter and anti-matter in the universe," he added. "Watchman itself, once commissioned, will become one of a small set of large antineutrino detectors worldwide that are capable of detecting antineutrino bursts from supernovae.

"Watchman, and more broadly the AIT, offers examples of the powerful synergy that can be gained when tools developed for basic science are applied in non-proliferation contexts."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News