Case #2: Detection of nuclear activities using noble gases

What is this technology area all about?
The ability to remotely monitor nuclear activities is vital to national and international security. All activities involving nuclear fission, such as nuclear explosions or reactor operation, produce significant amounts of radioactive noble gases, which are much more difficult to contain than other radioactive substances. Technologies to detect these gases can therefore provide useful information. The technology involves remote detection, location, and characterization of activities involving nuclear fission, or handling of material containing fission products.

How could this technology be applied?
Any activities involving nuclear fission can be monitored. The technique can for example be used in emergency preparedness, and to monitor normal reactor operation. It can be used to detect sources up to several thousands of kilometers away. This is achieved through very sensitive measurement equipment in combination with analysis of state-of-the-art atmospheric transport calculations and modelling of release scenarios. Sensor equipment, and to some extent location and source characterization methods, are already being used in the area of nuclear explosion detection. But if further developed, it has the potential of being used in other applications. Future development plans at FOI include small and mobile detection units, and improvement of analysis algorithms.

How could this technology be applied to the defense sector?
No other technology exists that can show the nuclear nature of an underground explosion. For this reason, it is used in treaty verification on a global scale. Systems developed by FOI and marketed by the company Scienta SAUNA Systems AB are deployed at more than 30 sites globally, including several in the US. In 2006, it was used by FOI to prove the nuclear nature of the first test explosion performed by the DPRK. The development of smaller and more robust units would improve the possibility to more effectively target specific facilities, suspected to contain reactor operation of special interest, production of certain radioactive materials, or reprocessing of nuclear fuel.

How does this technology match up against the Defense Innovation Initiative?
Detection of nuclear activities is crucial in the work against the proliferation of WMD. The Defense Innovation Initiative emphasizes the integration of relatively mature technologies that could be applied to the defense sector in a short time frame. This could be an example of such a technology. Source location and characterization analysis would benefit from techniques such as pattern recognition and neural networks.

What Technology Readiness Level are we talking about?
The stationary detection systems are around TRL 8. The mobile detection units are at TRL 3–4. The associated analysis algorithms need further development to improve from a current TRL of 5–6.

What are the thresholds against further advancement?
Data-analysis techniques need more R&D compared to the detection systems themselves. The main challenges include obtaining better source location techniques in combination with an optimized measurement strategy. This requires cooperation between the nuclear detection community and meteorological expertise. A better understanding of the basic physics related to nuclear signatures is also needed.

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