TEES researchers develop nuclear material detection and nuclear forensics methodologies to combat threats
International fears of nuclear war were once concerns of the Cold War era, but geopolitical and international developments within the last century have placed countries like North Korea and Iran at the forefront of nuclear tensions and capabilities. As concerns of proliferation, the spread of nuclear weapons development, grows among hostile foreign powers, researchers at Texas A&M University are improving technologies that help monitor nuclear materials across the globe.
“Geopolitical tensions and issues will likely always continue to be in flux,” said Dr. Sunil Chirayath, associate professor of nuclear engineering and the director of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station's Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute (NSSPI). “What’s important is that we continue the work we’ve been doing at Texas A&M to combat these threats.”
Texas A&M has a strong legacy of working in nuclear nonproliferation and forensics as the first university to create an education and research program combining the technical and policy aspects of nuclear security through the Department of Nuclear Engineering in 2003. With the establishment of NSSPI in 2006, Texas A&M has served as a watershed for the development of multidisciplinary solutions to nuclear security challenges and policy issues, two of which include the Self-Interrogation Neutron Resonance Densitometry (SINRD) detector and the further development of nuclear forensics methodologies for tracking black market nuclear materials to its source.
“These projects we have worked on and developed are part of the cutting edge of nuclear security and safeguards projects,” Chirayath said. “They will give organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) better tools for verification and accountability.
NSSPI collaborated with Los Alamos National Lab to develop a SINRD detector, which improves existing nuclear material accountancy measures for light water reactors. The SINRD detector provides numerous improvements over current IAEA verification tools.
Advances in nuclear forensics by NSSPI, with sponsorship from Department of Homeland Security, generated a specialized methodology to track nuclear materials to their source. Investigators would then be able to use this methodology, by analyzing plutonium isotopes, to keep weapons-grade plutonium out of the hands of terrorists or hostile powers. This new methodology is envisaged to support the deterrence aspect of nuclear security.
Such methods help agencies like the IAEA police the proliferation of nuclear materials. In 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons came into effect with 190 countries, ensuring that countries that work with nuclear materials are able to account for, safeguard and monitor uranium enrichment facilities and plutonium processing facilities to ensure weapons-grade nuclear material isn’t diverted for military purposes.
Nuclear weapons-grade material is a material that can sustain a rapidly growing chain reaction in which fast neutrons cause atoms to split, releasing more fast neutrons over and over again until it leads to an uncontrolled nuclear fission chain reaction. This uncontrolled chain reaction generates a nuclear explosion. Weapons-grade plutonium and uranium are not naturally present in the environment, but can be produced in suitably designed facilities.
As more advances are made in nuclear safeguards and security efforts, Texas A&M looks forward to leading the way in practical solutions to the nuclear security challenges to address nuclear threats worldwide.
“It’s a great feeling to be a part of these international efforts to help increase worldwide security against the threats,” said Dr. Craig Marianno, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and the deputy director of NSSPI. “The work we and our partners are doing is directly impacting the world community by preventing and protecting against these nuclear security scenarios.”