EU and IAEA celebrate silver anniversary of cooperation in field of nuclear safeguards

October 9, 2006

Brussels, 06 Oct 2006

This year the European Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) celebrate 25 years of cooperation in the field of nuclear safeguards. The anniversary was marked by a ceremony in Karlsruhe, southern Germany, where both parties pledged to continue their cooperation. The IAEA is the world's nuclear inspectorate, and as such it is charged with verifying that countries are complying with the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This means checking that a country's nuclear materials and facilities are not being 'diverted' to develop nuclear weapons. However, the IAEA does not have its own research and development capabilities, and so it relies on support from its members. The EU provides support through its Joint Research Centre (JRC).

'DG Joint Research Centre has provided us with tremendous scientific and technical support which has enabled us to perform our duties,' said Olli Heinonen, Deputy Director General of the IAEA. 'This has had a positive impact on the security, not only of the citizens of the European Union, but also for people worldwide.'

The field of nuclear safeguards has changed a lot since the IAEA started working with the EU in 1981. Then, the IAEA's work focused on checking whether countries' reports of their nuclear activities were correct. Now, there is a greater emphasis on detecting unreported, clandestine activities, and tracing the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials.

Over the last quarter of a century, the EU's Joint Research Centre has consistently developed state of the art tools and techniques to help the IAEA's team of 250 inspectors rise to these new challenges.

Services offered by the JRC include environmental sampling techniques. The first stage of this process is spectacularly low-tech; an inspector simply wipes a tissue over a surface in a nuclear facility. In the lab, the dust on the tissue is then inspected for radioactive particles, and these are analysed in a mass spectrometer. The resulting profile can tell the inspector about the production processes going on in the facility where the material was collected.

Another exciting development at the JRC is the creation of 3D laser models of rooms. The device which does this works in a similar way to an electronic tape measure. By taking measurements from a variety of angles, a detailed, 3D model of the room is generated. Inspectors can re-run the procedure at subsequent visits and compare the resulting model with the original. The system highlights any changes, including additions of piping or even small changes in the diameter of pipes which could indicate that the room is being used for different, possibly illegal purposes.

Information analysis is another tool which is becoming more and more important for nuclear inspectors. The JRC has developed software which monitors a wide range of open access sources such as news articles, research papers, reports and satellite images. For example, the system can pick up on discrepancies in what a certain country says at different times or in different places.

Looking to the future, Roland Schenkel, the Director General of the JRC, pointed out that the budget for cooperation with the IAEA would increase under the Seventh Framework Programme. 'We are not only celebrating today,' he commented. 'We are also making a commitment to the future.'

In the coming years, the JRC will continue to support the IAEA in a variety of ways. As detection techniques become more complex, the JRC will provide IAEA inspectors with training in the use of tools and the analysis of results. They will also work to refine their open source analysis techniques and continue to work on ways to provide a quick and accurate analysis of suspect materials.

Speaking at the event, Olli Heinonen said, 'By working together, we are much stronger than each of us working individually.' As the latest news from Iran and North Korea shows, the world is still in great need of ways to detect clandestine nuclear activities, and the JRC's contribution to this field remains as important as ever.

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