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Antineutrino Detector Could Spot Atom Bomb Cheats

Ghostly particles tell power levels and plutonium stock

4 min read

9 April 2008—Part of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s job of ensuring nuclear safety is to make certain that civilian reactors are not diverting any nuclear material to make weapons. A few kilograms of plutoniumis enough to make a nuclear weapon, and in the United States alone civilian reactors generate hundreds of bombs’ worth of plutonium every year. The IAEA could get much-needed monitoring help from a new type of detector that researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), in California, and Sandia National Laboratories, in New Mexico, recently tested. By detecting particles known as antineutrinos that fly out of the reactor, the device measures the reactor’s power and how much uranium and plutonium are present in the core.

The IAEA’s inspectors could verify if this information matches up with what is expected for a reactor of its size. During their operation, nuclear reactors consume uranium and create plutonium, so knowing the power level, for instance, would tell the inspector how quickly plutonium is being built up in the reactor core. ”If you operate at twice the power, you would build up plutonium at a significantly faster rate than at standard power,” says Adam Bernstein, an LLNL physicist who is leading the work.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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