Stack monitoring system installed at Sydney medical isotope facility

Representatives from PNNL joined ANSTO executives to install a radioxenon detector. Image source: ansto.gov.au.

A project led by the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has installed a high-resolution monitoring system at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO’s) medical isotope production facility in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights.

ANSTO is now the second facility in the world to install a stack monitor of this kind, following Radioelements in Belgium. Both facilities produce medical isotopes, including Molybdenum-99.

Medical isotopes are used daily around the world to visualise and diagnose cancer, heart disease and other serious ailments. However, the production of these medical isotopes can emit gasses that, while posing no threat to the wider community, have features that mimic those produced by a nuclear explosion.

The PNNL is working with the US Departments of State and Defence and the National Nuclear Security Administration to install highly sensitive detectors in nuclear facilities around the world via a project called STAX, or Source Term Analysis of Xenon.

The STAX project is an initiative to support global monitoring for nuclear explosions by providing stack monitoring equipment to measure effluents from the stacks of nuclear facilities that emit radioactive xenon.

PNNL scientists are experts in developing methods of detecting extremely low levels of radioactive isotopes. While the monitors being installed in the stacks are off-the-shelf devices, they’ve been modified to provide even greater sensitivity for the isotopes of interest.

Dr Judah Friese, principal investigator at PNNL, said that the use of data from monitoring medical nuclear isotopes will help international governments and agencies to monitor signals of nuclear explosions around the world.

“These first of their kind sensor systems, one in each hemisphere, will help with international measurements for detecting underground nuclear explosions,” Friese said.

“While these are the first companies to install these systems, more installations are planned at locations around the globe to increase confidence in international nuclear explosion monitoring.”

Emmy Hoffmann, who manages environmental monitoring at ANSTO, said that the opportunity to support the development or enhancement of nuclear forensic capabilities would enhance regional nuclear security.

“ANSTO has considerable nuclear policy and technology expertise, and we are delighted to join our international counterparts in the STAX project and contribute on a global scale,” she said.