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Study of the Universe could help improve global security

Antineutrinos can help monitor nuclear power plants and other activity

22 January 2019

The United Kingdom government is investing nearly £10 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 from 2022, the Advanced Instrumentation Testbed (AIT) project’s 6,500 tonne detector will measure the harmless sub-atomic particles called antineutrinos that are emitted by an existing nuclear power plant 25 kilometres away.

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 non-proliferation applications.

The AIT detector is called WATCHMAN, an acronym for the WATer CHerenkov Monitor of ANtineutrinos. It will be constructed 1.1 kilometres underground at the ICL 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.

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.

Professor Mark Thomson is Executive Chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council overseeing the UK delivery of the project. He said: “The UK and US have a long history of scientific collaboration, especially in translating the techniques used for basic science to solve real world problems. Not only will this project help improve global security cooperation, it will also provide a boost to joint research efforts into neutrinos and antineutrinos – research which could help solve some of mysteries around the creation of the Universe.”

Dr. Adam Bernstein from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California is the AIT-WATCHMAN Project Director. He said: “The ICL-Boulby site for AIT, with its proximity to an existing reactor complex, is the ideal location for our experiment. WATCHMAN and AIT give the physics and non-proliferation communities a rare opportunity to work together to harness neutrino detection for the practical purpose of non-intrusively monitoring nuclear reactors.”

Within the UK, physicists from the Universities of Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Liverpool have been working with national defence and security agencies, including the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), on the AIT-WATCHMAN project.

Dr. Matthew Malek of the University of Sheffield said: “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 programme of non-proliferation. 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.”

Dr Jonathan Burns from the Atomic Weapons Establishment said: “Identifying nuclear reactors from the emission of antineutrinos at a distance of tens of kilometres will provide a key capability in supporting the UK government’s nuclear non-proliferation mission. 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.”

Professor Sean Paling, the head of the existing STFC Underground Science Laboratory at ICL Boulby Mine said: ‘It is great to be having this world-class research project come to the UK and the North East region. 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 compliment and enhance the existing programme and increase the laboratory’s standing in the international science community.”

In the U.S., the participating institutions are Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 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. US funding is provided through the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and by the Office of High Energy Physics within the DOE Office of Science.

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AIT-WATCHMAN is a collaborative project between the Atomic Weapons Establishment and the Universities of Edinburgh, Liverpool and Sheffield in the UK; and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 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 in the United States. The project is enabled by the support of ICL UK.

About STFC and UKRI

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas. Visit the STFC website for more information.

About AWE

AWE plays a crucial role in national defence by providing and maintaining warheads for Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. AWE is contracted to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) through a Government-owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) arrangement. Whilst our sites and facilities remain in government ownership, their management, day-to-day operations and the maintenance of the nuclear stockpile, is contracted to a private company AWE Management Limited (AWE ML). AWE ML is a consortium comprising three partners: The Lockheed Martin Corporation, Serco Group plc and Jacobs Engineering Group.

For further information on AWE go to our website, or contact the press office by emailing Press AWE or calling 0118 985 5888.

About STFC Boulby Underground Laboratory

The STFC Boulby Underground Laboratory is a multi-disciplinary deep underground science facility, 1.1km below ground at ICL-UK’s Boulby mine. It is one of a few important facilities in the world suited to hosting deep underground and ’low-background’ science projects needing to be free from interference from naturally occurring ‘cosmic rays’ ever-present on the Earth’s surface. Boulby lab hosts a range of science studies from astrophysics (the search for Dark Matter in the universe) to studies of geology, geophysics, the environment, life in extreme environments on Earth and beyond. Boulby Underground Laboratory website.

About NNSA

Established by Congress in 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear explosive testing; works to reduce the global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad. Visit the NNSA website for more information.

About Office of Science

The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science is the lead federal agency supporting fundamental scientific research for energy and the Nation’s largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. The Office of Science portfolio has two principal thrusts: direct support of scientific research and direct support of the development, construction, and operation of unique, open-access scientific user facilities. The Office of Science supports research in all 50 States and the District of Columbia, at DOE laboratories and more than 300 universities and institutions of higher learning nationwide. The Office of Science User Facilities provide the Nation’s researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities that are unmatched anywhere in the world. Office of Science website.

About LLNL

For more than half a century, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has applied cutting-edge science and technology to enhance national security. LLNL has a mission of strengthening the United States’ security by developing and applying world-class science, technology and engineering that enhances the nation’s defence, reduces the global threat from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and responds with vision, quality, integrity and technical excellence to scientific issues of national importance. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory website.

About ICL Boulby Mine

ICL Boulby is the first and only commercial polyhalite mining operation in the world. After producing potash for forty years, the ICL Boulby mine has transitioned to polyhalite, which will keep the mine operating for years to come. As part of ICL, a global chemical and fertiliser business, ICL UK is pioneering the extraction and processing of polyhalite, which it markets as Polysulphate, a premium naturally-occurring fertiliser. ICL Boulby is the largest employer in East Cleveland, and the cornerstone of the local economy. ICL Boulby website.

Last updated: 22 May 2019


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