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A Day in the Life of a Nuclear Safeguards Inspector

Patricia Musoke-Zawedde, Teodor Nicula-Golovei

Nuclear safeguards inspectors travel around the world to provide in-field verification of a country’s nuclear material and technology. (Photo: IAEA)

Nuclear safeguards inspectors travel across the world, often to places such as nuclear power plants, uranium mines, nuclear fuel fabrication plants, enrichment facilities, research reactors and nuclear waste sites. Inspectors travel, sometimes at a moment’s notice, to nuclear facilities and other locations to provide in-field verification of a country’s nuclear material and technology. “Our job is very clear — we verify that nuclear material is used in peaceful ways,” said Helly Diaz Marcano, Nuclear Safeguards Inspector at the IAEA.

The IAEA is the only organization with the mandate to verify the peaceful use of nuclear material and technology worldwide. It pursues this mandate through the application of IAEA safeguards; a series of technical measures to verify that States honour their international non-proliferation obligations.

In 2021, around 280 IAEA inspectors collectively spent over 14 600 days in the field. These trips often involve demanding logistics. Inspectors follow strict processes and procedures, but they must also adapt to the unexpected.

Team members — usually between two and ten inspectors, depending on the type of facility — leverage one another’s skills and abilities, sharing the knowledge and experience of those who have visited the facility before.

The following provides a glimpse of what an IAEA inspector may experience during a day in the field.


The inspector ensures any necessary paperwork is in order and loads the inspection equipment into the team’s vehicle. After a drive that could last many hours, the IAEA team reaches its destination. First, with the help of facility staff, the IAEA team must clear security, which typically takes around half an hour. Inspectors then meet the operator, facility manager and other State representatives. The group discusses safety and security regulations and establishes the day’s agenda. After the meeting, the team begins to review the facility’s nuclear material accountancy records.


Accompanied by the operator, the team enters the facility. To do so, the team must put on personal protection equipment (PPE). Watches, jewellery or other accessories are removed; and phones, keys and wallets are stored to avoid the risk of contamination. Depending on the type of facility, inspectors may put on protective suits or lab coats. Hair is tucked away in a net, hood or hard hat. Inspectors also wear a dosimeter around their necks to monitor radiation levels and ensure their individual safety.

The inspectors then prepare for the more strenuous part of the job: working for the next four to six hours while carrying up to 15 kilograms of instruments, tools and other equipment. The equipment and cases must be hand-carried during most of the inspection to avoid the risk of contamination.

“It’s a privilege to be inside a nuclear facility; you can see the wonders of nuclear science and technology right in front of you,” said Dinesh Sharma, Nuclear Safeguards Inspector at the IAEA. “However, it is also a job full of surprises. Each inspection is unique and comes with its own challenges.”

To verify nuclear material with a State’s declaration and accountancy records, an on-site facility inspection can include a variety of activities. Tasks may include checking IAEA surveillance cameras that are part of remote and unattended monitoring systems; examining IAEA seals for tampering; or attaching a new seal to a container, hatch or nuclear material cask.

Another task may require counting spent nuclear fuel assemblies in a spent fuel pond. The inspectors stand on a bridge that extends across the pond and use customized cameras to verify the presence of the spent fuel. While one inspector identifies the spent fuel assemblies through a camera, a teammate helps ensure that what is identified matches what is reported. The IAEA team might request the facility operator to reposition a spent fuel assembly for further verification, with the help of the operator and facility staff.

Environmental sampling may also be conducted, during which the inspectors will use a cotton swipe to collect dust particles from surfaces in the facility. Anonymized samples are sent to the IAEA’s laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, and to other designated laboratories to look for minute traces of nuclear material.


The IAEA team meets with facility personnel to review the day’s work and discuss the next steps, which may include the activities planned for the following day, and to share the paperwork to be sent to the IAEA’s Headquarters. After this meeting, the coordinating inspector asks the other inspectors to provide a summary of the day and assigns parts of the inspection report to each of them.

Despite the demands of the job, safeguards inspectors agree that their work is important and rewarding. “I feel like a global citizen on a mission for peace and security,” said Amina Agbab Uthman, Nuclear Safeguards Inspector at the IAEA.

October, 2022
Vol. 63-3

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