Neutrinos are the least understood of the known elementary particles, and they just presented physicists with a new puzzle. While monitoring the neutrino flux from nearby nuclear power plants, three different experiments have measured an unexpected bump around 5 MeV. First reported by the Double Chooz experiment in 2014, the excess was originally not statistically significant
|5 MeV bump as seen by Double Chooz. Image source: arXiv:1406.7763|
|5 MeV bump as seen by RENO. Image source: arXiv:1511.05849|
|5 MeV bump as seen by Daya Bay. Image source: arXiv:1508.04233|
They give the excess a local significance of 4.1 σ – a probability of less than one in ten thousand for the signal being due to pure chance.
This is a remarkable significance for a particle that interacts so feebly, and an impressive illustration of how much detector technology has improved. Originally, the neutrino’s interaction was thought to be so weak that to measure it at all it seemed necessary placing detectors next to the most potent neutrino source known – a nuclear bomb explosion.And this is exactly what Frederick Reines and Clyde Cowan set out to do. In 1951, they devised “Project Poltergeist” to detect the neutrino emission from a nuclear bomb: “Anyone untutored in the effects of nuclear explosions would be deterred by the challenge of conducting an experiment so close to the bomb,” wrote Reines, “but we knew otherwise from experience and pressed on.” And their audacious proposal was approved swiftly: “Life was much simpler in those days—no lengthy proposals or complex review committees,” recalls Reines.
Briefly after their proposal was approved, however, the two men found a better experimental design and instead placed a larger detector close by a nuclear power plant. But the controlled splitting of nuclei in a power plant needs much longer to produce the same number of neutrinos as a nuclear bomb blast, and patience was required of Reines and Cowan. Their patience eventually paid off: They were awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in physics for the first successful detection of neutrinos – a full 65 years after the particles were first predicted.
Another Nobel Prize for neutrinos was handed out just last year, this one commemorating the neutrino’s ability to “oscillate,” that is to change between different neutrino types as they travel. But, as the recent measurements demonstrate, neutrinos still have surprises in stock.
Good news first, the new experiments have confirmed the neutrino oscillations. On short base-lines as that of Daya Bay – a few kilometer – the electron-anti-neutrinos that are emitted during nuclear fission change into to tau-anti-neutrinos and arrive at the detector in reduced numbers. The wavelength of the oscillation between the two particles depends on the energy – higher energy means a longer wavelength. Thus, a detector placed at fixed distance from the emission point will see a different energy-distribution of particles than that at emission.
The emitted energy spectrum can be deduced from the composition of the reactor core – a known mixture of Uranium and Plutonium, each in two different isotopes. After the initial split, these isotopes leave behind a bunch of radioactive nuclei which then decay further. The math is messy, but not hugely complicated. With nuclear fission and decay models as input, the experimentalists can then extract from their data the change in the energy-distribution due to neutrino oscillation. And the parameters of the oscillation that they have observed fit those of other experiments.
Now to the bad news. The fits of the oscillation parameters to the energy spectrum do not take into account the overall number of particles. And when they look at the overall number, the Daya Bay experiment, like other reactor neutrino experiments before, falls about 6% short of expectation. And then there is the other oddity: the energy spectrum has a marked bump that does not agree with the predictions based on nuclear models. There are too many neutrinos in the energy range of 5 MeV.
There are four possible origins for this discrepancy: Detection, travel, production, and misunderstood background. Let us look at them one after the other.
Detection: The three experiments all use the same type of detector, a liquid scintillator with Gadolinium target. Neutrino-nucleus cross-sections are badly understood because neutrinos interact so weakly and very little data is available. However, the experimentalists calibrate their detectors with other radioactive sources in near vicinity, and no bumps have been seen in these reference measurements. This strongly speaks against detector shortcomings as an explanation.
Travel: An overall lack of particles could be explained with oscillation into a so-far undiscovered new type of ‘sterile’ neutrino. However, such an oscillation cannot account for a bump in the spectrum. This could thus at best be a partial explanation, though an intriguing one.
Production: The missing neutrinos and the bump in the spectrum are inferred relative to the expected neutrino flux from the power plant. To calculate the emission spectrum, the physicists rely on nuclear models. The isotopes in the power plant’s core are among the best studied nuclei ever, but still this is a likely source of error. Most research studies of radioactive nuclei investigate them in small numbers, whereas in a reactor a huge number of different nuclei are able to interact with each other. A few proposals have been put forward that mostly focus on the decay of Rubidium and Yttrium isotopes because these make the main contribution to the high energy tail of the spectrum. But so far none of the proposed explanations has been entirely convincing.
Background: Daya Bay and RENO both state that the signal is correlated with the reactor power which makes it implausible that it’s a background effect. There aren’t many details in the paper about the time-dependence of the emission though. It would seem possible to me that reactor power depends on the time of the day or on the season, both of which could also be correlated with background. But this admittedly seems like a long shot.
Thus, at the moment the most conservative explanation is a lacking understanding of processes taking place in the nuclear power plant. It presently seems very unlikely to me that there is fundamentally new physics involved in this – if the signal is real to begin with. It looks convincing to me, but I asked fellow blogger Tommaso Dorigo for his thoughts: “Their signal looks a bit shaky to me - it is very dependent on the modeling of the spectrum and the p-value is unimpressive, given that there is no reason to single out the 5 MeV region a priori. I bet it's a modeling issue.”
Whatever the origin of the reactor antineutrino anomaly, it will require further experiments. As Anna Hayes, a nuclear theorist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Fermilab’s Symmetry Magazine: “Nobody expected that from neutrino physics. They uncovered something that nuclear physics was unaware of for 40 years.”