An Ocean of Knowledge

The Laboratory began its work by studying radioactive substances in the marine environment and their effects on marine life. (Photo: IAEA)

On 10 March 1961, the IAEA concluded with the Principality of Monaco and the Oceanographic Institute, then directed by Jacques Cousteau, an agreement on a research project on the effects of radioactivity in the sea. The opening of the IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories in Monaco that same year marked the start of a new era for research into the marine environment.

Fifty years later, that cooperation has expanded significantly through collaboration between the Laboratories - now known as the Environment Laboratories - with international and regional organizations, as well as national laboratories.

During the past fifty years, the Principality of Monaco has been an active partner in the Laboratories' development. His Serene Highness Prince Albert takes a strong personal interest in the Laboratories' work.

Unique data derived from the application of nuclear and isotopic techniques improve scientists' knowledge of the seas and oceans and help to assess pollution. These studies support the sustainable development of the ocean. The research is buttressed by strategic partnerships with other UN agencies such as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, as well as the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the International Maritime Organization.

Many Member States' national laboratories rely upon the Laboratories' accurate analyses of sea water, sediment and marine life samples. Reference materials and methods produced by the laboratories have helped to improve the quality and reliability of analytical data in Member State laboratories for the past 50 years.

For instance, the Radiometrics Laboratory uses radionuclides as environmental tracers, in collaboration with leading research centres around the world, to quantify ocean circulation, the transport of pollutants in coastal ecosystems, sedimentation and submarine groundwater discharge. IAEA scientists have participated in collaborative research and assessment work on sites impacted by pollution throughout the world.

The Radioecology Laboratory studies the impacts of contaminants on seafood safety and the effect of climate change and ocean acidification on marine organisms, as well as the ocean's ability to sequester CO2. The Laboratories have been in the front line of the battle against harmful algal blooms, which are highly toxic to fish, shellfish and other marine life. They also represent a threat to human health and endanger the livelihoods of fishermen in almost every coastal region around the world. The Environment Laboratories have successfully promoted the use of a nuclear-based technique using receptor-binding assay for early detection and monitoring.

The Laboratories provided the essential scientific and analytical support for a landmark study of radioactive and non-radioactive pollutant levels in all principal seas. They have undertaken worldwide radioactivity baseline studies of the Atlantic, North and South Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Antarctic Oceans and the Far Eastern, Mediterranean, and Black Seas. Regional studies have been conducted in the Gulf, the Irish, Kara and Caspian Seas, New Caledonia and the Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls.

The Marine Environmental Studies Laboratory focuses mainly on non-radioactive pollutants such as pesticides, polychlorinatedbiphenyls (PCBs), petroleum hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), antifouling paint booster biocides, but recently has also dealt with radioactive contaminants. In cooperation with regional laboratories, the Laboratory provides training and implements marine monitoring programmes, while acting as the analytical support centre for regional organizations protecting marine environments.

In time of need, the laboratories can respond quickly to support Member States. After the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in March 2011, the Environment Laboratories worked actively with Japan, and with the IAEA Incident and Emergency Centre in Vienna, making staff available and analysing samples collected by IAEA radiation monitoring teams.

Currently, more than 80 Technical Cooperation projects are led by the laboratories, including a marine study on the impact of the Fukushima Daiichi radioactive releases in the Pacific Region.

Last update: 11 November 2014