Department of Physics researchers recently successfully carried out an experiment that placed a high-tech box full of what looks like greenish luminescent plastic Rubix cubes stacked atop one another outside a reactor at Dominion Power’s North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Mineral, Virginia.
The box is designed to 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. The long-term plan for future box prototypes is worldwide: Imagine a new, foolproof tool for how the United Nations tracks rogue nations that seek nuclear power.
“Our deployment at North Anna was a great success,” said Jonathan Link, a professor and head of the department’s Center for Neutrino Physics, in March. “We have detected neutrinos, and we are working on refining our analysis now.”
The Virginia Tech team calls the box “tamper proof” and says, if successful, it can all but eliminate instances of falsified paperwork or uneasy inspection visits. 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 box is an early prototype — roughly a two-foot cube, with an active volume weighing 175 pounds — but Link said 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 at facilities around the world.
“If they want a nuclear reactor, we can let them build it and detect its activity with a minimal impact on its operations,” Link said, adding that nuclear energy is an important part of a new worldwide low-carbon future that requires careful oversight.