Joint Research Centre

Nuclear Watchdogs in Lab Coats

Radioactive particle detectors, satellite surveillance, laser sensors, expert software in exotic languages, training nuclear inspectors… For a quarter of a century, the European Union’s Joint Research Centre has been providing its logistical expertise to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body appointed to combat the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials.

Manipulation of nuclear fuels in the actinide laboratory. Manipulation of nuclear fuels in the actinide laboratory.
© Institute for Transuranium Elements
The ITU has the only non-military actinide research laboratory. Inspection of the analysis chamber using a photoelectron spectrometer. The ITU has the only non-military actinide research laboratory. Inspection of the analysis chamber using a photoelectron spectrometer.
© Institute for Transuranium Elements
Samples being received in the containment chambers of the IAEA laboratories in Seibersdorf (AU). Samples being received in the containment chambers of the IAEA laboratories in Seibersdorf (AU).
© Dean Calma/IAEA
Checking for radioactivity in the environment during a field survey in Georgia (2002). Checking for radioactivity in the environment during a field survey in Georgia (2002).
© Petr Pavlicek/IAEA

Adopted in 1968 by the United Nations, the Treaty on the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is intended to promote disarmament whilst recognising the right of nations to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Although it unites the vast majority of states on the planet, some sizeable countries are not included, notably the nuclear powers of India, Pakistan and Israel. Furthermore, North Korea, which performed an underground atom bomb test in October 2006, withdrew from the treaty in January 2003. And Iran, which is refusing to stop its production of enriched uranium, has banned International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, whose mandate it is to ensure global monitoring of any nuclear activity which could be used for military purposes later, from its territory.

This Vienna-based agency, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on 29 July this year, employs over 2 200 people of 90 nationalities. Each year, its 250 inspectors make some 10 000 visits to 900 installations spread over 71 countries. These inspections are aimed at locating any illegal weapons programmes, and combating the illicit trafficking in nuclear materials, particularly uranium, plutonium and thorium, which can be used for both civil and military purposes. In 2005, within the context of increasing tensions, the agency and its director general, the Egyptian Mohamed El Baradei, saw their efforts rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.

‘Our verification mission is constantly under pressure,’ says Olli Heinonen, Deputy Director General of IAEA and head of the department responsible for the application of the NPT. ‘Access to education and scientific knowledge, as well as the reduction in technological costs, make the option of nuclear weapons more attractive in certain regions with security tensions.’

Key Roles of the Joint Research Centre

In order to carry out their tasks successfully, the inspectors must have highly specialised technology and up-to-date training; the IAEA depends on the efforts made in these areas by the signatory states of the NPT. For its part, the Union supports the agency with the sum of about € 6 million each year, offering the scientific and technological services uniquely developed by its Joint Research Centre (JRC).

‘Since 1981, the various JRC institutes have played a key role in the successful functioning of the agency,’ points out Olli Heinonen. ‘From the training of inspectors to laboratory analysis techniques, and the updating of information software on the internet or satellite surveillance, about one hundred JRC scientists and technicians support the work of the IAEA in twenty-five fields.’

In Karlsruhe (Germany), for example, the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) closely supports the IAEA inspectors. Surrounded by electric barriers, the institute has the only non-military laboratory for research into actinides, the radioactive elements, which include uranium, plutonium and thorium. Equipped with their electron microscopes, shielded containers, mass spectrometers and other radionucleid analysis equipment, its detectives in white coats are masters in the art of analysing samples collected by inspectors. In 1990, a laboratory robot was designed here which, by automating the operations required for high-precision analysis such as the chemical separation of uranium and plutonium, saves time and reduces the risk of researchers being exposed to radioactivity.

Gleaning Information from Imprints

One of these techniques consists of evaporating an element from a sample in order to analyse the resultant vapours by comparing their composition with that of reference materials. Another particularly effective procedure is to use cotton weave, with which the inspectors are provided, and which has been specially designed to collect the billions of dust particles deposited at an installation. Using mass spectrometry, the ITU researchers can isolate minute radioactive particles and determine the isotopic composition of uranium particles. ‘Any nuclear activity leaves traces,’ explains Klaus Mayer, who is in charge of the laboratory. ‘Every element of a technological process has the equivalent of a digital imprint, rich in information about the production process, and even about its potential uses. In the same way as a police laboratory analyses as many indicators as possible to solve a crime (hair, fingerprints, explosive residues, fibres, etc.), we meticulously analyse the composition of the isotope, impurities, macroscopic appearance and microstructure of each element provided. Our extremely powerful equipment identifies the origin and intended use of the materials seized by the inspectors. A few particles collected at a site sometimes enable us to go several years back in time.’

Since the 1990s, ITU detectives have managed to throw light on about 30 cases of trafficking in nuclear materials. In particular, they succeeded in characterising the plutonium present in a case seized at Munich Airport in 1994. In the same year, they analysed several pellets of nuclear fuel and a small cylinder of 99.7% pure plutonium seized during a police raid on suspected counterfeiters.

Reference Materials

Located in Geel (Belgium), another JRC site, the Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM), is another body involved in European cooperation with the IAEA. This institute is concerned with quality control of nuclear measurements in European and non-European laboratories, an important activity for ensuring the comparability of measurement results. The IRMM has also developed ‘standards’, which provide scales of reference for the analysis of nuclear materials. A third European body, the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen (IPSC), located in Ispra (Italy), has provided a number of tools used, for example, to train inspectors or to supervise their missions in the Russian Federation. This institute also performs tests on portable equipment used by the IAEA inspectors in operating conditions, which are sometimes extreme.

Inspection Robot

The institute has developed a system to check complex installations which, by using laser technologies to measure distances, improves conventional visual detection capability. Traditional video or photographic images lack the precision to detect changes made to parts, which are small, poorly lit or cleverly concealed. Now, inspectors should be able to detect any modification made to a high-security nuclear system, which may prove critical or even reveal an illicit programme.

Equipped with a multitude of sensors, this laser system can produce a three-dimensional model, accurate to the nearest millimetre, of simple pipework, such as for a tank, a machine room or a whole building. By performing scans at regular intervals and by superimposing the images, it is possible to automatically spot any modification to an installation. ‘Why has this pipe’s diameter been modified? Can you document these modifications? The slightest unreported modification arouses the inspectors’ curiosity,’ explains Willem Janssens, head of the Nuclear Safeguards Unit at the JRC.

In 2006, this robot was installed in the enormous Japanese reprocessing plant at Rokkasho Mura (38 buildings, 1 700 kilometres of pipe - work). With its vast experience gained at the reprocessing plants of The Hague (France) and Sellafield (United Kingdom), the JRC is also supporting the IAEA’s surveillance mission in this vast complex. Europe also provided essential on-site support in the setting up of an analytical control and measurement laboratory.

The Hunt for Information

The approach to nuclear safety has developed greatly over the last few years, following the discovery of an illegal military nuclear programme in Iraq in 1991, the dismantling of networks involving European industrialists, and the trafficking following the collapse of the Soviet regime. In an attempt to adapt control mechanisms to this new type of fraud, the IAEA adopted an additional protocol in 1997 which, ten years later, is applied in 78 states, including the 27 Member States of the Union. This protocol significantly extends the inspectors’ powers of investigation, and they are now appointed to monitor the flow of information relating to potentially illicit nuclear activities.

In this respect, the powerful search engine, Europe Media Monitor (EMM), also designed by the JRC, provides a unique means of gathering global information in this sensitive area (1). Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, EMM analyses the editorial activity of 800 sites and 25 press agencies, in 30 languages including Farsi. Its software collects, indexes and analyses the press and numerous specialist reports, and this information is often combined with satellite images available online. Its filters cross-reference information, evaluate its relevance, and survey additional analysis tools, such as satellite imagery. In the fight against illegal activities, nothing is as effective as ‘knowing everything’.

  1. With some 10 000 keywords, EMM offers a rich database of information covering numerous sectors, both political and socio-economic or techno-scientific. The site is accessed by about 20 000 active users. Each day it provides 25 000 articles and sends 4 000 e-mail alerts.

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Continued Training of Inspectors

If they want to ensure that states are meeting their commitments with regard to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, the 250 IAEA inspectors must be familiar with the latest techniques and equipment, be capable of performing accurate analyses, and be able to handle extremely complex information and data.

In 2005, in support of this IAEA mission – and with the involvement of all those responsible for nuclear safety in the Union – the JRC Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen designed (and now manages) the internet portal Surveillance and information retrieval. The portal is dedicated to technological systems and innovations concerning nuclear security (3D images, integrated remote controls, protection of information exchanged between surveillance agencies, information retrieval).

For many years, the JRC has also been providing IAEA inspectors with high-level training. As underlined by its director general, Roland Schenkel, ‘the most pressing training needs concern improving knowledge about sensitive installations, weapons systems and materials, methods of analysis and decision-making procedures at plants.’ New training courses also enable IAEA inspectors to hone their powers of observation and investigation in order to detect undeclared activities.

The JRC courses, which cover the full spectrum of nuclear security, are not, however, only intended for this agency. Some training courses are aimed at official national or international organisations, such as Europol and Interpol, or at customs or security managers, to enable them to acquire the necessary know-how with regard to prevention and protection, and detection and identification techniques.