Nuclear watchdog ‘sniffs’ the wind at Mawson

Nuclear Watchdog

Video transcript

Australia’s Mawson research station in east Antarctica

Inside this ordinary-looking shipping container is a crucial part of the global network that polices a ban on nuclear testing


The CTBTO stands for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation. The purpose of that organisation is to monitor the planet for signs of nuclear explosions.

One of 80 stations around the world, this sampler ‘sniffs’ the wind for tell-tale radioactive particles


On a daily basis we check the air sampling that’s done here. So, there’s a filter that’s changed every day that actually senses the atmosphere for contaminants that would indicate some sort of nuclear activity.

The high volume air sampler catches airborne particles on filter paper


They do occur naturally and in this monitoring station we will see some naturally occurring radionuclides. Others that are non-naturally occurring can be there as a result of a nuclear explosion or some other process.

The filter is compressed into a disc, for analysis and storage


Finally the filter is placed on a gamma spectrometer where it’s analysed. A computer monitors the work flow, collects the data which is then transmitted to Vienna via satellite to the international data centre.

ARPANSA relies on expeditioners to run the sampling during the year


A lot of things I've done down here that you’d never get the opportunity anywhere else, and, yeah, that’s what makes it exciting. It’s why I like the job. The day is never the same and there is always something challenging to try your hand at.

(ARPANSA=Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency)

[end transcript]

aerial view of Mawson station in snow
Australia’s Mawson research station in east Antarctica, Nov 2019 (Photo: Simon Payne)
scientist puts sample into spectrometerman in white coat changes filter in labtwo people outside shipping containertwo people watch graph on computer screen

An ordinary-looking shipping container at Australia’s Mawson research station plays an important role in the global network that polices a ban on nuclear testing.

Inside is a high-volume air sampler, one of 80 world-wide, running every day since 2013 to ‘sniff’ the wind for traces of radioactive debris.

The air sampler at Mawson is part of the international monitoring system for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which aims to ensure that no nuclear explosion goes undetected.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) is responsible for 9 of the 21 monitoring stations within Australia and its territories.

Three are in Antarctica — Mawson research station monitors radionuclides in the atmosphere and seismic vibrations in the earth’s crust, and an infrasound facility near Davis research station uses acoustic pressure sensors to detect very low-frequency sound waves in the atmosphere.

A radionuclide is an atom with an unstable nucleus that loses its excess energy by emitting radiation in the form of particles or electromagnetic waves. All chemical elements can exist as radionuclides. They occur naturally or can be produced artificially by nuclear reactors, particle accelerators, or nuclear explosions.

Recently ARPANSA officers Sandra Sdraulig and Stu Henderson travelled to Mawson research station with the Australian Antarctic Program to support monitoring activities there.

ARPANSA relies on the assistance of AAD expeditioners — in 2019 at Mawson, for example, Deputy Station Leader Dave Davies and Station Leader Kyle Williams — to run the sampling process throughout the year.

Visit the ARPANSA website to learn more about the technologies used by the CTBT International Monitoring System.

An interactive map from the CTBT shows the CTBT status of nations, the international monitoring system, and locations of nuclear explosions.