Researchers from Lancaster University in England have developed a camera that is able to see the radiation emitted by nuclear reactors. The team, led by Jonathan Beaumont, has drawn inspiration from the eyes of cats and believes this technology will boost safety and efficiency in nuclear power plants, as well as provide necessary assistance in case of nuclear disaster emergencies.
Described in Nature Communications, the monitor can detect both fast neutrons and gamma-ray emissions simultaneously. The system uses a single detector, containing a liquid scintillator which fluoresce when exposed to energetic neutrons or gamma rays. The detector itself is positioned behind a slit-shaped tungsten collimator (analogous to the feline slit pupils) that stops the detector from becoming saturated (like when an image is over-exposed) by the high-intensity nuclear emissions. An external cylindrical collimator, made of polyethylene, surrounds both the detector and the interior. The camera is then moved around and rotated on its axis so that the rate of detection at different angles allows the researchers to determine the exact source of radiation.
The data obtained from the camera can be monitored in near real-time and can provide crucial information regarding the state of the nuclear core, the efficiency of the fuel burn-up and the condition of the reactor, all independently of the previously installed instrumentations.
Malcolm Joyce, professor of nuclear engineering at Lancaster University and co-author of the research, thinks the technology will increase the safety of nuclear power plants. Speaking to IFLScience, he said: “The ability to picture fast neutron emissions on a stand-off basis, as we have demonstrated, provides additional information about radioactive environments which cannot be obtained easily otherwise. It's anticipated this will benefit safety and advance our ability to respond to emergencies.”
Neutron and gamma-ray images at various steady-state reactor powers. Credit: Beaumont et al. / Nature Communications
The fast neutron/gamma-ray imager, as it's been creatively named, has been in development for four years, building on the achievements of several preceding projects. It has a longer lifespan than currently employed monitoring technologies and is small enough to fit in a suitcase, weighing just 20 kilograms (44 pounds). The portability of the camera is a key feature that makes the instrument ideal in case of nuclear accidents. In-loco instruments could become damaged in an accident, and current external imaging technologies take a long time to provide useful data, resulting in emergency procedures being carried out with a significant lack of information on the radiation source.
With 436 nuclear power plants currently in operation across the globe, and another 555 either under construction, planned or proposed, the development of monitoring technology such as this is paramount in guaranteeing the safety of investing in nuclear energy.
Top image credit: Nuclear reactor at Reed College by Don McCullough, via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0