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How Do You Find Plutonium? Go To Nuclear Inspector School via NPR

No names. No pictures. No direct conversation.

And don’t touch the plutonium.

Those were the ground rules before NPR was allowed a rare opportunity to see nuclear inspectors learning their craft. The inspectors came from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog.

This week, the agency will be looking on as Iran begins to scale back its nuclear program. Under the terms of a multinational agreement, Iran is to dramatically cut its uranium stockpile, mothball much of its nuclear equipment and restrict the rest to peaceful use. In exchange, the U.S. and other nations are to lift economic sanctions.

The IAEA’s role in the deal is somewhere between that of a football referee and a tax accountant. Its inspectors will crisscross the country visiting labs, reactors and even uranium mines. They will meticulously catalog equipment and material to make sure it’s all accounted for. If something seems off, they are the ones who will cry foul.

School Of Nukes

The inspectors NPR met were visiting Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is (ironically enough) a nuclear weapons lab in Los Alamos, N.M.

“We used to wear buttons that said, ‘It’s The Plutonium, Stupid,’ ” says Nancy Jo Nicholas, who oversees global security at Los Alamos. “That’s why people come here.”

Plutonium and uranium are used in ordinary nuclear power reactors all around the world. But when they are properly purified and enriched, they can also be used to make nuclear weapons.

Inspectors must learn everything about plutonium — the civilian kind, which is used in some power reactors, and also the kind used in nuclear weapons. Los Alamos has plenty of both.

Behind barbed wire and security checkpoints, the eight inspectors are working in an anonymous-looking building known as “Technical Area 66.” They’re an unassuming bunch, dressed in ordinary street clothes. Their accents suggest they come from all over the world.

Peter Santi, who is heading the training for Los Alamos, takes me across the classroom to pick up some pure plutonium oxide. It’s sealed in a metal container about the size of a paint can, with a makeshift handle made of tape to make it easier to carry. (Dropping the plutonium “makes a loud noise and it scares everybody,” Santi jokes.)

We put the can of plutonium into another container about the size of an oil drum. It’s designed to catch radioactive particles flying out as the plutonium decays.

“Nuclear material, when it decays, produces very unique signatures,” Santi explains. The radiation acts as a fingerprint for the substance, and it’s virtually impossible to mimic.

Inspectors use the radioactive fingerprint in two ways. First, they check it to verify the kind of material they are dealing with. Then they measure it to figure out how much material is there. Santi can nail down the amount of plutonium in this can to within a gram — a fraction of a percent of the total 606-gram mass.

In Iran, inspectors will work primarily with uranium, but they will bring the same dogged precision to their measurements. In addition to measuring nuclear materials, they will take environmental samples, install cameras and conduct visual inspections, among other things.

Continue reading at How Do You Find Plutonium? Go To Nuclear Inspector School

 

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