TrendTrend: Remote monitoring of nuclear weapon proliferation

Published 1 February 2006

More nuclear reactors are being built as nations try to lessen dependence on foreign oil and comply with environmental regulations, but more nuclear reactors mean more weapon proliferation risk and need for new and more effective remote monitoring technology

Iran’s relentless effort to acquire the capability to build nuclear weapons have captured the world’s attention, not least because of the anti-Semitic outbursts of the Iranian president and other mullahs and the recent appeal by Iran that the UN set up a commission (“scientific commission,” Iran said) to prove that the Holocaust never happened. The issue of nuclear weapons proliferation, however, goes beyond Iran. The issue will become more acute as the number of nuclear reactors around the world is set to rise as nations look for ways to cut their greenhouse gas emissions lessen their dependence on oil. All nuclear reactors can be used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. This reality should prompt countries to acquire the means to monitor each other to make sure weapons-grade plutonium is not being made in hiding.

This should be a challenge for science and an opportunity for business, because right now there is no means of doing this. Researchers in different institutions around the world say, however, that they have the beginnings of an answer, as they develop devices that can detect whether a nuclear facility is producing radioactive material that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon. This development work may not be relevant to the cases of Iran and North Korea, but the surveillance devices they are working on may prove invaluable to the nuclear police of the future. If all new and, perhaps, existing — reactors were required to be fitted with such detectors, it would be very difficult for a country to produce weapons-grade plutonium in secret. The availability of such devices would also allow existing nuclear powers to reach agreements and monitor them on cutting off production of new fissile material.

What, however, about rogue regimes which refuse to allow the installation of these monitoring devices in their nuclear reactors? To monitor the nuclear activities of these countries there will be a need for detectors capable of remotely monitoring antineutrino levels, something which is not yet possible. Computer simulations carried out by Eugene Guillian, a particle physicist at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, indicate that detectors sensitive enough to pick up distant signals would weigh about 10 million tons and cost around $100 million to build, putting them well out of the reach of the IAEA. A few strategically placed detectors close to countries of interest, such as Iran and North Korea, which would be smaller and cheaper than those needed for global monitoring, would be a more realistic goal, Guillian says. “Targeted monitoring might happen,” he says.

-read more in Celeste Biever’s New Scientists report