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Neutrinos Could Monitor Iranian Nuclear Plant

Neutrinos are the second most abundant particles in the universe.  They’re invisible and seem to have little impact on our daily lives, but without them life itself, would not be possible.  Now Scientists think they may be useful for monitoring nuclear reactors, like the one in Iran.  

Physicist Enrico Fermi named the particle he had long surmised existed, neutrino Italian for ‘the little neutral one’ because, it has a neutral electrical charge.

“Most often likened to ghosts because they have the ability to go through walls through planets through stars.”

That’s Virginia Tech Associate Professor of Physics, Patrick Huber.  He’s building on work that began decades ago, to find a way to use neutrinos to measure what’s going on inside a nuclear reactor, specifically, whether anyone is removing plutonium, which could be used to make a nuclear bomb. Here’s how Huber explains the idea:

“Assume you have a car and you’re expecting your neighbor to steal gas from you. You can use the meter and the gas mile of the car to compute how much gas you have used and see whether that’s really what you needed to put into the tank.”

The problem, he says is that you only find out about your neighbor’s theft when you go to the gas station.

“And what neutrinos do for you in this case, they’re like a fuel gage. You actually can see what’s in the tank without going to the gas station. And what’s miraculous about neutrinos, it's a fuel gage which you don’t have to hook up to your car you can put it next to your car and it still works.”

Japanese scientists recently published a paper that showed they could monitor neutrinos by putting a detector in the back of a van and parking it outside the reactor.  But what are the chances that Iran, for example would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor its nuclear reactors this way

“The advantage for Iran to agree to a scheme like that is, right now there’s a lot of mistrust about what the future intentions of Iran will be. And the willingness to accept this type of safeguard would demonstrate that they really are serious about coming clean with their nuclear program.”

Huber says Iran has a small neutrino community and that scientific exchanges have built a lot of bridges. He points to the European Organization for Nuclear research known as CERN, which operates the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.

“After 2 world wars, CERN was the first thing Germany and France ever did together and so physics and science in general have played a really important role in bridging these gaps.”

Huber contributed to a letter published in Physical Review.  It estimates this kind of monitoring could take 5 years to perfect, but Huber says that with a more concentrated effort it might take as little as one year.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.