This summer, I attended the Nonproliferation and International Safeguards Summer Course at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA, thanks to the Caltech Y Advocating for Change Together (ACT) Award. It was an intense learning experience and a first step for me in the nuclear energy world.
I entered the program thinking that safeguards were all about keeping radioactive material safe from theft or ensuring that nuclear material doesn’t leak into the surrounding environment. In reality, safeguards are recognized internationally as nonproliferation efforts aimed at preventing states which do not already have a nuclear weapon from diverting material from a civilian nuclear energy program to make one.
Learning about nonproliferation is complex and frustrating. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the main world agency in charge of enforcing safeguards, derives most of its power from the voluntary cooperation of states. States that do not wish to cooperate may simply choose not to. Enforcement of nonproliferation on the international stage is also limited and uneven. The 1970 treaty regulating safeguards came after the permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, Russia, UK, France, China) had acquired nuclear weapons and these are the only states recognized by the treaty as “Nuclear Weapons States.” Countries that developed nuclear weapons programs after 1970, like India and Pakistan, would have to abandon and dismantle their nuclear weapons programs if they were ever to join the treaty.
It was an opportunity to learn about the current state of nuclear energy in the world, how people in the field envision its future, and a chance to understand how science, technology, and policy can work hand in hand to build a more peaceful world.
However, the work done at the IAEA represents a true hope for international cooperation. It is a gathering of experts who very rarely get to meet: American and Soviet nuclear experts during the Cold War, Americans and Iranians nowadays. They all strive to make the world a safer place, yet never infringe on the "inalienable right [...] to develop research, production and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes".
During my week at PNNL, I discovered many aspects of their work. I learned how safeguards are implemented using extremely accurate tools with enticing names (e.g. electrically cooled germanium system, improved Cherenkov radiation viewing device, high-level neutron-coincidence counter, etc.). A simpler tool that has become universally adopted at the IAEA is the environmental sampling - taking swabs and samples of the surrounding surfaces and ground. As one former IAEA inspector put it, "I could put a pellet of uranium on a table for 5 seconds, take it away and come back in a few years, and environmental sampling could still tell me what the enrichment level of that pellet was."
Measuring the radiation emitted from a box containing fire detectors (whose Americium 241 content gives off a recognizable signature on the handheld detector) and fragments of plutonium at the bottom.
Looking ahead, many technologies promise to change the nuclear world. A major one is additive manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing-like techniques can lower the barrier for entry in nuclear research, but also into nuclear weapons). To address these new challenges, the IAEA relies on the technical creativity of its employees, but also the world at large. It routinely sets up crowdsourcing challenges to find solutions to its modern problems using image analysis, data mining, and network security. Potentially, data science and machine learning (searching satellite photos and sourcing the Internet) could become the greatest tool in the IAEA's toolbox.
Control room of the B Reactor at Hanford Nuclear site.
All in all, this program was an eye-opening experience. It was an opportunity to learn about the current state of nuclear energy in the world, how people in the field envision its future, and a chance to understand how science, technology, and policy can work hand in hand to build a more peaceful world.
The Caltech Y challenges students to grow into responsible citizens of the world. It is with this mission in mind that the Y created the Advocating Change Together (ACT) Award providing motivated Caltech students with a unique opportunity to learn about themselves and their place in society by seeking to impact the world through community engagement, activism and leadership. The ACT Award is generously funded by the Caltech Employees Federal Credit Union.