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NNSA developing new analysis for illicit nuclear materials

LAARS-ES

The agency charged with security of U.S. nuclear materials and international non-proliferation efforts said it is developing a more efficient technique to detect illicit and potentially dangerous highly enriched uranium (HEU) in refinement processes.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said one of its most challenging nonproliferation efforts is developing safeguard technologies that can detect and deter illicit efforts by countries who have promised not to make fissile materials. The administration doesn’t mention any specific countries in a July 5 blog post describing its detection tech development, but Iran has officially foresworn the production of nuclear weapons, but is suspected of continuing to pursue them in secret.

“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,” said the post.

It said one of the more difficult safeguard challenges are dual-use Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Plants (GCEPs), that can produce both HEU for weapons and low enriched uranium (LEU) for civilian nuclear energy and other peaceful uses.

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

The agency said 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. Additionally, the technique—called Laser Ablation Absorbance Ratio Spectroscopy Environmental Sampling (LAARS-ES)—has many practical advantages. Most notably, said NNSA, sample collection and analysis can be performed much more quickly and inexpensively than conventional techniques.

The agency said LAARS-ES has already been successfully demonstrated at PNNL and the lab has started to seek engagement opportunities to conduct technology demonstrations at domestic and international GCEPs. This 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, it said.