IAEA Inspectors Use Satellite Feeds To Track Sensitive Nuclear Materials

A surveillance camera is mounted in the reactor hall to record the activities taking place. (Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant, Slovakia. Photo credit: D.Calma/IAEA)

IAEA inspectors have started using direct satellite feeds from nuclear facilities to track sensitive nuclear materials and check they are not being diverted for non-peaceful use. The first field trial connecting a nuclear power plant in Slovakia to IAEA headquarters started in April this year.

Images and electronic seal data recorded at a Slovak nuclear spent fuel pool and reactor core are now downloaded daily to the Agency´s safeguards computer systems. The images are taken every five minutes, the data is encrypted/authenticated, then transmitted to Vienna. Inspectors review the data and determine if the plant is operating as declared.

"It provides Agency inspectors with a continuous flow of information," says Mr. Massimo Aparo of IAEA Safeguards Technical Support. Previously inspectors needed to travel to the nuclear facility to retrieve the data, making such a journey every three months.

The IAEA is now working with the European Space Agency to assess the feasibility and cost of using satellites to relay data from 100 plus surveillance systems the Agency operates in 13 countries. "The idea is to create secure, global communication networks between IAEA headquarters, remote nuclear facilities and regional offices," Mr. Aparo said. Such a set-up would enable several gigabytes of data to be transmitted each day to IAEA headquarters for inspectors to scrutinize.

The IAEA first started using remote monitoring of selected nuclear facilities on a trial basis in the 1990´s, using telephone lines and the Internet to transmit the data.

"These telecommunication networks are not always reliable, especially when communicating with less developed countries that lack established telecommunications infrastructure," Mr. Aparo said. "One advantage of satellites is you do not need to rely on the infrastructure of the country." Telephone lines are also not optimal to transfer large amounts of data, Mr. Aparo said.

It is ultimately hoped that using satellites to transmit data from IAEA remotely monitored facilities will prove to be, in many cases, a more cost-effective and efficient solution than transmitting the data by telephone lines, or gathering it manually by inspectors travelling in the field.

The results of the feasibility study for a prospective global roll-out of the use of satellites to transmit data from IAEA remotely monitored nuclear facilities are expected by the end of the year.

Last update: 12 November 2014