More than 70 percent of the earth's surface is covered with water - and fully 97% of that water is contained in saline seas. Marine ecosystems are vital to global food supplies: roughly one billion people, most of them in developing countries, depend on fish for their sole source of protein. And more than half the people on earth live in coastal zones.

The importance of the oceans and seas to economic wellbeing and environmental balance is acknowledged. But in a rapidly industrializing world with a population of roughly 6 billion people, what is being done to preserve this unique resource for generations to come?


For over 30 years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has helped to support and operate the only marine laboratory in the United Nations system, the Marine Environment Laboratory (MEL) in Monaco. Today, MEL is among the foremost specialized marine science establishments in the world, at the forefront of international efforts to understand, preserve and protect the marine environment. Principal funders of MEL are the IAEA, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Government of Monaco. Partners in research and field activities include the Inter-governmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Japan, Sweden, Germany, France, the EC and a number of other governments and non-governmental organizations.

Over the past decade, MEL's expertise has been applied to many pressing international environmental challenges:

Origins and Objectives

A strong commitment to guarding the integrity of the seas comes naturally for the people of Monaco, given the Principality's location and economic reliance on the Mediterranean. But it was with considerable foresight that, back in 1959, Prince Rainier III hosted the first world-wide scientific conference on the disposal of radioactive wastes on land and at sea.

Two years later, Monaco's government and the IAEA formalized their partnership by establishing MEL's predecessor, the International Laboratory of Marine Radioactivity, dedicated to improving knowledge about the behaviour of radionuclides in the seas and promoting use of nuclear and isotopic techniques in protecting the marine environment.

With the continuing support of IAEA and the Principality, the Laboratory expanded the scope of scientific research and field activities over the course of three decades into many related fields and established itself as a valuable source of technical assistance for IAEA Member States. In 1991, it was renamed the "Marine Environment Laboratory" to convey more accurately the broad scope of responsibilities it had assumed in providing scientific expertise and technical support to Member States.

Today MEL operates on a modest regular annual budget of about US$5 million and has a full time staff of about 50 scientists, technicians and administrative personnel. Extrabudgetary resources for specialized research and services from a variety of governments and international bodies total some US$3 million annually.

MEL activities concentrate on five principal areas:


Understanding Marine Radioactivity

MEL has been engaged in deepening scientific understanding of marine radioactivity since its beginnings. Over the decades, moreover, research has broadened to include analysis of a wide range of non-radioactive pollutants in the marine environment, using nuclear and isotopic techniques.

MEL examines the consequences of radioactive discharges and disposals by monitoring and assessing radionuclide levels and modelling their dispersion in the marine environment. The results then assist Member States in radiological assessments related to nuclear weapons test sites, nuclear waste disposal areas, and in emergency responses to accidents at sea. To facilitate this work, MEL has created a Global Marine Radioactivity Database (GLOMARD) to provide Member States with radioactivity baseline data on seawater, sediment and biota for undertaking assessments.

In addition, a large-scale project on Worldwide Marine Radioactivity, generously supported by Japan, is being carried out with the aim of providing new data on present radionuclide levels in the oceans and seas.

Improving Knowledge of Oceans Using Isotopic Techniques

Nuclear and isotopic techniques are being employed in a wide variety of research activities aimed at enhancing understanding and improving the management of marine ecosystems:

Radiotracer methods are used to study agrochemical compounds, such as pesticides, and their accumulation and effects in marine systems. They are also applied in establishing the pathways and accumulations of heavy metals and other toxic elements in the marine environment and their effects on people and the ecosystem.

Training & Capacity Building for Member States

In cooperation with the IAEA's Departments of Research and Isotopes and Technical Cooperation, MEL provides support to developing Member States in obtaining high quality data on marine radioactivity and radioecology, while the non-nuclear contaminants are covered through close cooperation with other specialized agencies including UNEP, the IOC of UNESCO, UNESCO and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The Laboratory also supports marine pollution monitoring and research in developing countries by conducting joint exercises and training courses as part of an integrated programme of quality assurance for Member States.

Each year approximately a dozen specialist training courses are conducted for participants from developing countries in subjects such as marine radioactivity and radioecology, radiochemistry and various aspects of analytical chemistry. MEL also sponsors dozens of trainees from developing countries to work on research projects at Monaco and elsewhere to enhance their scientific skills. During 1996, MEL implemented 10 IAEA Technical Cooperation Projects, while providing advisory and technical assistance missions to 31 Member States.

Providing Analytical Quality Control Services

In order to produce reliable scientific results, monitoring laboratories need to follow a quality control system that includes regular measurements of contaminants in standard reference materials and participation in intercomparison and intercalibration exercises. MEL is a worldwide centre for quality assurance data for all types of chemical contaminants, both nuclear and non-nuclear. It also conducts regional exercises for quality assurance in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf area, the western and southeast Pacific, west and central Africa, east Africa, southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the southwest Atlantic, the Arctic, the Baltic and the Black Sea.

Scientific investigators associated with such intercalibration exercises have reported approximately 100,000 measurements since 1971 for specific contaminants in seawater, sediment, seaweed, plants, fish and other organisms. Participating laboratories in Member States have increased from approximately 50 in total in 1970 to 208 different laboratories now analyzing radionuclides, trace organics and trace elements. Some 60 different intercomparison materials are available.

Promoting Inter-Agency Initiatives to Protect the Seas

Chapter 17 of the Agenda 21 agreement calls for "new approaches to marine and coastal area management and development at the national, sub-regional, regional and global levels" and the strengthening of inter-agency co-operation in this regard. Emphasis was also placed on building the capacities of national and regional institutions (especially in developing countries) for making environmental assessments and controlling marine pollution.

Thus, in addition to carrying out an IAEA-focused work programme, MEL responds regularly to requests for technical assistance from many other United Nations agencies,international organizations and governments. Within the UN, co-operative activities are formally established with the UNEP, and IOC-UNESCO. There is also extensive collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the UNDP, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in programmes of assistance for developing countries.

A focal point for this co-operation is being provided by the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, which has been requested and supported by Member States and requires MEL's services for analytical capacity building.


MEL is playing a key role in a number of special international scientific investigations related to marine radioactivity and ecosystems. Among the most recent:

Nuclear Wastes in Arctic Seas - together with experts from Russia, Norway, and USA, MEL has been undertaking five expeditions to and laboratory analysis of samples collected in the Kara and Barents Seas to determine potential hazards to humans and the marine environment from dumped wastes, including reactors. Computer models have also been developed to predict the dispersion of any future leakage, and laboratory studies of concentration factors and distribution coefficients in Arctic conditions have been carried out.

Nuclear Weapons Tests in the South Pacific - at the request of the French Government, MEL is participating in an in-depth analysis of the radiological consequences of several decades of weapons testing on the Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls in French Polynesia. The study is being directed by a special International Advisory Committee convened by IAEA's Director General, and will assess not only the current radiological situation but also the long-term ecological impacts.

Rising Waters of the Caspian Sea - in collaboration with the Isotope Hydrology Section in IAEA headquarters, UNEP and governments from the affected zones, MEL is conducting studies to understand better the causes of the dramatically rising levels of the Caspian Sea. By employing isotopic techniques to study the water cycle, the investigation will provide a new platform for the affected countries to cooperate in solving this environmental crisis.

Pollution of the Black Sea - in collaboration with the Agency's Technical Co-operation Department and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), MEL is at the centre of a combined research and capacity building initiative that addresses the rapidly deteriorating condition of Black Sea waters. Isotope tracers are being used to investigate water circulation and pollutant behavior, while equipping and training activities ensure an improved regional ability to monitor and control the quality of the marine environment.


In 1998, MEL will enter a new stage in its development with the opening of purpose-designed laboratory premises, which will more than double floor space, consolidate three Lab Sections into one building and improve facilities substantially, including a new training centre. As a contribution to the UN's International Year of the Oceans, MEL will host an inter-agency Symposium on Marine Pollution in 1998.

The new laboratories position MEL to play an even stronger leadership role in key areas of scientific interest to IAEA Member States. These include: