University of Michigan Leads $25M Program to Detect Nuclear Activity, Weapons

U-M is leading a $25-million project to advance nuclear detection technologies. Sara Pozzi, director of the new program, puts a radioactive sample in an array of detectors. // Photograph Courtesy of University of Michigan

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is taking the lead on a $25-million project funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The project will advance technologies to identify bomb-making nuclear materials, find secret nuclear weapons facilities, and detect nuclear detonators around the world.

The program includes 14 universities and 13 national laboratories and is known as the Consortium for Monitoring, Technology, and Verification. It has the dual purpose of demonstrating new ways to catch terrorists and nations that are acting in violation of nuclear treaties, as well as developing the nuclear security workforce.

At least 200 students will work on international projects or speculative concepts.

“The national laboratories are experiencing a large number of retirements of skilled and experienced workers, so there is an urgent need for young people to be trained in these areas and connected with the national laboratories,” says Sara Pozzi, director of the new program and U-M professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences. “The majority of the funds will go to student fellowships, internships, and travel.”

The research efforts will be organized along three “thrusts,” or goals. The first is particle detection. Watchman, a U.S.-U.K. collaboration is in this thrust and is developing an underground detector for ethereal particles that can travel straight through earth. These antineutrinos are produced in reactors and can reveal whether a reactor is running. Engineers can use the operating schedule to deduce whether a reactor is being used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. It may be possible to monitor reactors from hundreds of miles away.

The second thrust is detecting secret production of nuclear weapons. For example, nuclear nonproliferation inspectors take samples inside nuclear facilities to look for evidence of weapons-related activity. Researchers will study whether they should look outside as well for changes in plants and living things that might take in or interact with materials released from nuclear activities, perhaps revealing uranium enrichment or plutonium separation.

The third thrust is enhancing global monitoring for nuclear explosions. An example project has researchers making a global network of sensors that already watches for nuclear explosions more accurate and effective by collecting and giving the network more data.

The new program follows on the success of the Consortium for Verification Technology, which Pozzi led for the past five years. The consortium developed new detectors and methods for verifying nuclear treaties while recruiting and training nearly 300 students.