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The Future of Advanced Nuclear Technologies
Interdisciplinary Research Team Challenges

Advanced Nuclear Technologies Interdisciplinary Research Challenge 3: Develop innovative approaches to make special nuclear materials (SNMs) more easily monitored and more detectable if stolen.
 
Challenge Summary
The United States, as well as several other countries, expends considerable resources to protect stored special nuclear materials (SNMs), as well as to detect such materials if stolen or transported internationally.  Especially if enclosed in high Z shielded containers, Pu, U and other transuranic materials are extremely difficult to detect in the normal flow of commerce.  Radiation monitors are deployed at great expense at land border crossings and points of air and sea embarkation and debarkation in attempts to detect smuggled materials.  Although effective for some contraband radioisotopes, these monitors tend to be relatively ineffective as a detection approach for small quantities of SNMs.  New approaches continue to be worked on that promise to improve the detectability of these materials.   More specifically, new means of probing specific signatures of nuclear materials are being developed that could enhance the detection probability of such materials while reducing the number of false alarms. For example, photon beams that excite specific states in the materials of interest promise to enable the detection and quantification of materials even for standoff distances with minimum impact on the environment. As a passive technology, muon tomography has offered real promise.  But can such systems be developed and built with sufficient sensitivity and with a footprint feasible for realistic operations at isolated borders or in mainstream commerce?
 
The locations of the vast majority of stored SNMs are known and are in reasonably secure locations in several parts of the world.  Assume that international agreements could be successfully negotiated that require creative, new configurations for storing SNMs.  What innovative approaches could be developed and deployed that would make these materials more easily monitored and more detectable if stolen (e.g. tagged with coatings of detectable isotopes or with detectable gases that would be emitted if containers are breached?).  What approaches could make these materials more easily traceable and less useable if they fell into the wrong hands? 
 
SNMs are most likely to be with us for the foreseeable future.  There are several international institutions and agreements that are in place to help manage the risk.  Arguably these have been successful in preventing wider proliferation of nuclear materials as well as accidental or intentional nuclear events.  But it is not clear how long this situation with continue.
 
Key Questions
What are the scientific and practical limits of the detectability of SNMs?
 
What new technologies to detect SNMs are under investigation and can they be practically developed and deployed nationally and internationally?
 
In addition to technical performance and cost, what other criteria (e.g. radiation dose to operators, existing international agreements, host state motivations) must be considered in selecting detection technologies for deployment?
 
What are the institutional barriers to international “requirements” that SNMs  be more detectable and/or less useable?
 
Since SNMs is likely to be with us for a long and unpredictable length of time, what are suggested improvements to international institutions to manage the risk?
 
Given the grave consequence of a failure to manage the risk, are efforts in training specialists adequate?
 
Suggested Reading
IAEA safeguards agreements and additional protocols: verifying compliance with nuclear non-proliferation undertakings. International Atomic Energy Agency: September 2011.
 
IAEA safeguards agreements and additional protocols: non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear security. International Atomic Energy Agency: April 2005.
 
NNSA next generation safeguards initiative fact sheet. U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration: Jan 2, 2009.
 
Nuclear energy research and development roadmap: report to Congress. U.S. Department of Energy: April, 2010.