Elusive antineutrinos can help monitor nuclear power plants and other activity
The United Kingdom is investing nearly £10 million (about $12.7 million) in a joint project with the United States to harness existing particle physics research techniques to remotely monitor nuclear reactors.
Expected to be operational in 2024, the Advanced Instrumentation Testbed (AIT) project’s 6,500-ton detector will measure the harmless subatomic particles called antineutrinos that are emitted by an existing nuclear power plant 25 kilometers, or about 15.5 miles, away. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) are partners in the research effort.
The project will test whether the technique could be scaled up in the future for more distant monitoring of nuclear sites, with the potential for nonproliferation applications.
The AIT detector is called WATCHMAN, an acronym for the WATer CHerenkov Monitor of ANtineutrinos. It will be constructed 1.1 kilometers underground at the Boulby mine in North Yorkshire — the deepest operating mine in Europe. AIT-WATCHMAN will be supported by the Boulby Underground Laboratory, an existing multidisciplinary deep-underground science facility operated by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
Abundant throughout the universe, and created by our own sun and other stars, neutrinos are among the most difficult fundamental particles to study, as they carry no electrical charge and rarely interact with ordinary matter.
Studying the properties of neutrinos and antineutrinos is an important component of wider physics research into the origins of the universe, especially the apparent imbalance between matter and antimatter.
“The Boulby site for AIT, with its proximity to an existing reactor complex, is the ideal location for our experiment," said Adam Bernstein, the AIT-WATCHMAN project director and an LLNL physicist. “WATCHMAN and AIT give the physics and nonproliferation communities a rare opportunity to work together to harness neutrino detection for the practical purpose of non-intrusively monitoring nuclear reactors.”
The UK and U.S. have a long history of scientific collaboration, especially in translating the techniques used for basic science to solve real world problems, explained professor Mark Thomson, executive chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council overseeing the UK delivery of the project. “Not only will this project help improve global security cooperation, it will provide a boost to joint research efforts into neutrinos and antineutrinos — research that could help solve some of the mysteries around the creation of the universe.”
Within the UK, physicists from the Universities of Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Liverpool have been working with national defense and security agencies, including the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), on the AIT-WATCHMAN project.
“The beauty of AIT-WATCHMAN is that it enables us to learn more about the universe on so many levels, while also supporting an innovative program of non-proliferation," said Matthew Malek of the University of Sheffield. “We will study one of the fundamental building blocks of nature, the neutrino, and we will use it to search for supernovae in other parts of our galaxy. At the same time, we are developing new techniques that will have a positive impact on Britain and the rest of the world.”
“Identifying nuclear reactors from the emission of antineutrinos at a distance of tens of kilometers will provide a key capability in supporting the UK government’s nuclear nonproliferation mission," added Jonathan Burns, from the AWE. "The AIT project is an excellent example of detector technology, developed by the physics research community in the UK and internationally, being used to address global security challenges.”
"It is great to be having this world-class research project come to the UK and the North East region," said professor Sean Paling, head of the existing STFC Underground Science Laboratory at Boulby Mine. "Boulby is a special place for science in the UK and already supports a range of pure and applied science studies from astrophysics to studies of life on Earth and beyond. This new project will complement and enhance the existing program and increase the laboratory’s standing in the international science community.”
In the U.S., the participating institutions are LLNL, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Boston University, Iowa State University, Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Pennsylvania State University, and the Universities of California (at Berkeley, Davis and Irvine), Hawaii, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
UK funding is provided through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Fund for International Collaboration, and the Ministry of Defence. U.S. funding is provided through the Department of Energy’s (DOE) NNSA and Office of Science.