University to lead new nuclear monitoring coalition

By Tom McBrien, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 9, 2014

Few scenarios are more terrifying than the possibility of a nuclear war or terror attack. But thanks to a federal grant, the University is leading a consortium that will develop cutting-edge technology and methods for nonproliferation efforts in the U.S. and worldwide.

The University received a $25 million grant from the Department of Energy to lead the 13-university consortium in improving technologies for monitoring nuclear materials, developing new methods to detect secret nuclear tests, analyzing current nonproliferation efforts and training the next generation of experts in the field.

Engineering Associate Prof. Sara Pozzi has been selected as the director of the program, which is called the Center for Verification Technologies.

“There are threats from nuclear weapons that are real,” Pozzi said. “There are nations that are trying to develop overt, or even covert, nuclear weapons programs. There’s also the possibility that terrorists might acquire and use nuclear weapons. And these are interrelated problems, so the consortium will address these big issues.”

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which came into force in 1970, has three major tenets: disarmament by current nuclear countries, nonproliferation for non-nuclear countries and the right of all countries to pursue peaceful nuclear energy. Of the world’s 195 countries, 190 have signed the treaty. Notable exceptions are India, Israel, Pakistan, South Sudan and North Korea, which withdrew in 2003.

The Center will monitor these countries, as well as nations that have signed the treaty, and look at geophysical models of the effects of nuclear explosions. Secret underground nuclear tests cause shaking in the ground that has a different signature than earthquakes. New research could help agencies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, detect these specific geophysical signatures, alerting them that a country is conducting illegal tests.

Another important arm of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will allow nations to pursue nuclear energy without developing nuclear weapons. But monitoring nuclear material to ensure that it is not enriched into weapons-grade forms such as plutonium, uranium-233 and uranium-235 is currently a time-intensive and costly enterprise that relies on quickly disappearing materials.

Current detection systems rely on a material called helium-3, which is growing increasingly rare because it was manufactured largely as a byproduct of nuclear weapons manufacturing. Researchers from the Center hope to create new detection systems that rely on specific emissions of neutrons — small particles that make up atoms — to detect enriched radioactive material.

Researchers also said they hope the new technology would enable inspectors to monitor nuclear material without opening containers — a much safer, faster, easier and less expensive alternative.

Seismological testing and verification systems are only a part of what the Center will focus on. As the chief scientist of the project, Engineering Prof. David Wehe is in charge of defining the “Grand Challenges” and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration.

“This is a daunting task because the CVT engages seismology, radiation detection, infrasound, optics, satellite sensing and imagery, intelligence gathering, big data mining, and policy,” Wehe wrote in an e-mail interview. “CVT seeks to direct research in these diverse fields to meet a single mission area: nuclear verification.”

Pozzi said the University is a great choice to lead the consortium due to its history of excellence in nuclear and radiological studies.

“Michigan had the first nuclear engineering program in the nation,” Pozzi said. “We had some of the founding fathers of nuclear radiation detection. One of them is Prof. Glenn Knoll, who is now an emeritus professor, and he will be sitting on my advisory board.”