But now, technology being developed in the Bay Area could revolutionize the way we monitor nuclear reactors and the radioactive materials they contain.
With all the colored lights it might seem like researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are setting up for a rock concert. But, the cone-shaped bulbs they are handling actually do the opposite. They absorb light the tiny fragments of light created when microscopic particles collide.
"So the particle we care about is called the anti-neutrino. They come out of nuclear reactors and they interact in our detectors," Dr. Adam Bernstein said.
Those detectors are housed in a giant vat, which Bernstein and his team say is a prototype of what could be the world's most sensitive radiation detector. Bernstein says it is important to understand that as radioactive fuel rods decay with use, they unleash invisible particles called anti-neutrinos. The anti-neutrinos are so tiny they pass through solid objects including the vat, which is filled with a liquid rich in protons. When the anti-neutrinos collide with the protons, they trigger the sub-atomic light show.
"And they can create a very particular pattern of flashes of light and we look for those flashes of light in the photo multiplier tubes," Bernstein explained.
This technology could be used to monitor a nuclear reactor from hundreds of yards, or perhaps miles, away and tell not only if a nuclear reactor is running, but how much nuclear fuel it is using.
"It's sort of like a wireless window into the reactor core," Bernstein said.
And, if the reactor were in a potentially hostile country, like North Korea or Iran, inspectors could be able to estimate how much plutonium is being created in the nuclear process, and whether any of that potential bomb-making material is unaccounted for later on.
"We would be able to tell by looking at our neutrino signature that that amount of material has been diverted," Bernstein said.
A prototype of the anti-neutrino detector is already being tested at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in Southern California.
In the meantime, the research team is continuing to refine several prototypes with the goal of making a system small enough that it could be used by nuclear watchdog agencies for international monitoring.
Researchers say the detector could also provide critical information in the event of a nuclear accident such as Chernobyl, where responders were uncertain for days whether the core was still melting.