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Nuclear Chemistry

How chemistry helps track and detect nuclear materials

Chemists are designing better methods to analyze confiscated nuclear materials and to track nuclear activity remotely

by Kerri Jansen
May 10, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 20


Credit: International Atomic Energy Agency/C&EN

Monitoring the use of nuclear materials is an issue of global concern, especially amid news that the U.S. is leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal), an agreement intended to limit that country’s nuclear program. But the same materials needed to build nuclear weapons also show up in power plants. So how can international regulators ensure nuclear materials are used only for peaceful purposes? Chemists are helping to develop techniques to spot illicit nuclear activity from afar and track it when it slips out of regulatory control. For example, a massive antineutrino detector called Watchman could be a powerful tool to keep tabs on distant nuclear operations—if scientists can get the chemistry right.


CORRECTION: The video embedded in this story was updated on May 18, 2018, to correct the chemical symbol for plutonium. It is Pu, not P.


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