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Can science prevent nuclear war?

December 5, 2013
By Jeremie Fish , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

This certainly seems like a funny question. Science is the reason we even have to discuss nuclear war today; without the necessary advances in physics we never would have had to worry about such atrocities. Yet science proves over and over again that it can be a double-edged sword, doing good on the one hand and evil on the other.

The interesting thing is that it is yet another advance in physics that may allow the detection of nuclear material. Imagine if we could keep track of the world's supply of uranium and plutonium without ever having to send an inspector. This may be a possibility in the future.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been working on creating a detection system which could measure Plutonium while it is inside the reactor, from a location just outside of the facility.

The detector that LLNL is developing (and has shown to work) utilizes a sort of phantom particle called an antineutrino. Neutrinos are very small, nearly mass-less balls of energy that fly through things constantly. They very rarely interact with anything; in fact, when they were first postulated by Wolfgang Pauli, he was afraid they would never be detected. Fortunately, although they rarely interact with materials, neutrinos do occasionally interact and if there is a large enough number of them a weak signal can be generated.

Even when they were first discovered (in the 1950's) nobody knew how they would be useful, other than for the advancement of scientific knowledge. Amazingly, now more than 50 years after their detection we have finally found a practical use for neutrinos.

Due to their ghostly nature and the fact that they are produced in very large quantities by the weak force (the force that governs nuclear decay and thus is important in nuclear reactors), antineutrinos allow us to peer inside nuclear reactors. It turns out that Plutonium gives off a characteristic antineutrino signal that can be measured from just outside the reactor (LLNL is working on increasing the distance from which the measurement can be made as well).

Changing the amount of plutonium in the reactor causes a change in the antineutrino signal. Thus if someone is removing the Plutonium (most likely to turn into a bomb) we could see that this has occurred and take the appropriate countermeasures. This would certainly make monitoring nuclear material much easier as it would not require the physical presence of an individual at the site.

Certainly knowledge of exactly where the world's Plutonium is would be valuable information to have. We have seen in our troubles with Iran that this could be a dangerous issue for world security. Thanks to our advances in science, perhaps one day we will be able to avoid conflict with nations like Iran and still be secure in knowing that they are not building nuclear weapons.


Jeremie is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student. He can be contacted at



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