Utilizing building materials to monitor for high enriched uranium

A new paper details how little samples of ubiquitous building materials, for example, tile or brick, can be utilized to test whether a facility has ever stored high enriched uranium (HEU), which can be utilized to make nuclear weapons. The method could fill in as a valuable forensic tool for national or international efforts related to nuclear nonproliferation and security.

“We can now use the housing structure itself as part of any nonproliferation monitoring efforts,” says Robert Hayes, an associate professor of nuclear engineering at North Carolina State University and author of the paper. “This work details the theory to test building material samples to differentiate between the forms of uranium used in nuclear power and the HEU that’s used to develop nuclear weapons.”

The procedure expands on past work done by Hayes and his research group.

The technique requires testing a relatively small core sample of the relevant building material, about the size of individuals’ pinkie finger. The testing is finished utilizing hardware to some degree like that used to assess radiation exposure of dosimeter badges worn by laborers in the nuclear power industry. One might say, a little piece of any wall viably turns into a dosimeter badge.

“Our technique allows us to determine how much radiation a material has been exposed to, in addition to the very types of radiation a material has been exposed to,” Hayes says. “Because different radionuclides have different radiation fields, these measurements allow us to determine which nuclear materials were stored near whatever building material we’re sampling.”

While this procedure is new, there is as of now interest in it among the agencies in charge of nuclear monitoring – and Hayes is working to improve the method further.

“We’re optimistic that this will be a valuable tool in the nonproliferation monitoring toolbox, but we need to address some existing questions,” Hayes says.

“For example, the radiation signature will vary depending on where the nuclear material was stored in relation to whatever sample we’re testing. If our sample was from brick that was right under a uranium storage container, the signature will be different than if the container was located 20 feet away, horizontally. Theoretically, these properties of the signature would be consistent over any gridded array of the same building material. Sampling such an array would then allow us to reconstruct not only what material was stored at a site, but precisely where it was stored. That’s something we’re working on now.”

The research was finished with support from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, under grant NRC-HQ-84-14-G-0059; and from the Consortium for Nonproliferation Enabling Capabilities under grant DE-NA0002576, which is based at NC State and sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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