Program officer finds new ways to keep watch on nuclear technology
Keeping nuclear material out of the wrong hands is a big job, but somebody’s got to do it. As a senior safeguards support program officer at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Bob Truong wears many hats to help accomplish just that.
Bob and his team provide training and equipment to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watchdog that ensures nations around the world are using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
He sure has his work cut out for him. Many countries have legitimate reasons for wanting nuclear technology—to generate cheaper electricity, for example—but the IAEA wants to weed out those with ulterior motives. It’s not always easy to distinguish between the two, especially if a country has invested heavily in measures to fool inspectors.
International nuclear police
Technology can be a lot harder to fool. Bob and his team have been developing new ways to keep those using nuclear technology honest. The knowledge they gather in their research is passed on to the IAEA, which conducts the actual investigations.
Bob helps train IAEA inspectors to use different forms of technology, including satellite images and light- and heat-sensing equipment. And the IAEA uses that technology, he says, to make sure every country that has signed the treaty on the peaceful use of nuclear energy is on the level, even ones we may think are above suspicion.
“They check on many countries, including Canada,” says Bob.
Pictures to prove it
Thanks to the Internet, a key tool for the CNSC is now familiar to many—satellite imagery. Bob compares the technology his department uses to the popular Google Earth program. But the CNSC’s equipment is a bit more sophisticated than the software you’ll find online, says Bob. “Google Earth is pretty good, but really, you don’t have the up-to-date information. We actually use the real pictures, which we buy directly from the supplier.”
Satellite imagery offers a look at nuclear facilities in Canada or just about anywhere in the world. For the IAEA, it can be “difficult to go to a particular location,” he adds. “So observation from satellite imagery is sometimes very convenient.”
Another innovation making the rounds at the IAEA is the much-improved radar satellite technology. “A few years ago, the resolution on radar satellite images wasn’t high enough,” says Bob. “Now it’s a lot clearer; it looks like a picture rather than a blob.”
Feeling the heat
Bob also works with the new Digital Cerenkov Viewing Device, which detects ultraviolet light from spent nuclear fuel kept in underwater storage. This sophisticated imaging device was developed jointly by two companies, one Canadian and the other Swedish.
“When they want to cool the fuel used in nuclear reactors,” says Bob, “normally they put it in a pool. The spent nuclear fuel emits ultraviolet (UV) light. This device is used to determine if it’s the real fuel down in the pool, or if it’s fake.”
“This allows the IAEA to keep track of used fuel and to be certain it isn’t diverted to illicit purposes, such as the production of nuclear weapons.”
The IAEA can also use thermal satellite imagery to detect unusual amounts of heat generated by nuclear reactors. Several satellites, such as the American Landsat-7, have this capability.
“For example, if a country says, ‘well, our nuclear reactor is not in operation,’ but you view it from above and see the cooling water coming out all red—that means it’s hot. If you do a detailed analysis, you can even estimate the temperature coming out.”
Bob, who is recognized as one of the top experts on satellite technology, is invited to share his expertise at different venues around the world. For example, he was in Vienna and Tokyo recently to talk about the latest technology in radar satellites.
He says he is glad to have found his true calling. “I’m lucky—research and innovation allow me to do what I love.”