Scientists Seek Safer Way to Check if Nuclear Bombs Are Real

June 26, 2014, 9:20 a.m.

A new scan­ning meth­od may be able to veri­fy a nuc­le­ar bomb’s au­then­ti­city without re­veal­ing secrets about its design to the test­er, Agence France-Presse re­ports.

“The goal is to prove with as high con­fid­ence as re­quired that an ob­ject is a true nuc­le­ar war­head while learn­ing noth­ing about the ma­ter­i­als and design of the war­head it­self,” Robert Gold­ston, a Prin­ceton Uni­versity as­tro­phys­ics pro­fess­or, said in a state­ment on Wed­nes­day.

The tech­nique may ul­ti­mately prove use­ful in car­ry­ing out mon­it­or­ing activ­it­ies un­der a stra­tegic arms con­trol treaty between Rus­sia and the United States, ac­cord­ing to AFP. It could also help to con­firm any pro­lif­er­a­tion of nuc­le­ar arms to a gov­ern­ment or non­state act­or, the wire ser­vice said.

The meth­od — out­lined in a Wed­nes­day art­icle in Nature — in­volves de­term­in­ing the con­tents of a pos­sible bomb by count­ing how many neut­rons from a dir­ec­ted en­ergy beam can pass from one side to an­oth­er, ac­cord­ing to AFP. The find­ings are matched against a readout pre­pared in ad­vance by the weapon’s own­er, elim­in­at­ing any need for the test­er to view sens­it­ive de­tails on the bomb’s in­ner work­ings.

“This ap­proach really is very in­ter­est­ing and el­eg­ant,” said Steve Fet­ter, an as­sist­ant head of the White House Sci­ence and Tech­no­logy Policy Of­fice. “The main ques­tion is wheth­er it can be im­ple­men­ted in prac­tice.”

An ini­ti­at­ive to re­fine the meth­od at the Prin­ceton Plasma Phys­ics Labor­at­ory has re­ceived a $3.5 mil­lion grant from the U.S. Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, a semi­autonom­ous branch of the En­ergy De­part­ment.

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