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Next Generation Safeguards Initiative develops new detection techniques

PNNL DiagramDiagram: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

One of the many nonproliferation challenges is the development of new safeguards technologies that can detect and deter illicit efforts to produce fissile material by countries that have committed to forgo nuclear weapons. Meeting this technology challenge is a key mission for NNSA which cooperates with its international partners to develop and implement safeguards technologies to support the International Atomic Energy Agency as it monitors countries’ compliance with their international safeguards agreements. One of the more difficult safeguards challenges is Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Plants (GCEPs), which can produce both HEU for weapons and LEU for civilian nuclear energy and other peaceful uses.

Conventional safeguards at GCEP facilities rely heavily on a combination of non-destructive and destructive analytical techniques. Non-destructive techniques can evaluate without damaging the material assessed, but the results are not always conclusive. A destructive analysis technique exists for GCEPs that is very accurate, but also less timely and cost effective.

Norm Anheier, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), is developing a unique destructive analytical capability­­­—funded by NNSA’s Office of Nonproliferation and International Security and the Next Generation Safeguards Initiative—to provide timely detection of undeclared HEU production. In addition to its scientific novelty, this technique—called Laser Ablation Absorbance Ratio Spectroscopy Environmental Sampling (LAARS-ES)—has many practical advantages. Most notably, sample collection and analysis can be performed much more quickly and inexpensively than the conventional techniques mentioned above. The figure below lays out the measurement process.

The technique has already been successfully demonstrated at PNNL. The laboratory has started to seek engagement opportunities to conduct technology demonstrations at domestic and international GCEPs. This innovative technology is one of many funded by the Next Generation Safeguards Initiative that is applying research funding to advance U.S. and global nonproliferation efforts.