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Detecting Nuclear Material Smaller Than a Pin

Jennifer Wagman

IAEA safeguards inspectors collect environmental samples. (Photo: IAEA)

The IAEA brings together analysts and experts to verify that nuclear material and technology are used only for peaceful purposes. The IAEA provides credible assurances based on information gathered from official State declarations, in-field verification activities and other safeguards relevant information. One activity that IAEA inspectors may carry out while in the field is the collection and analysis of samples — mainly nuclear material and environmental samples — from nuclear facilities and other relevant sites.

Since the 1970s, nuclear material samples have been collected for nuclear material accounting. Samples usually contain gram-sized amounts of uranium and milligram to microgram amounts of plutonium. These samples are packed in special vials and protective containers that are securely sealed and shipped to the IAEA’s Nuclear Material Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, for analysis. In 2021, the Agency collected over 700 nuclear material samples.

“From the collection of samples by IAEA inspectors to the analysis in the IAEA laboratories and then final evaluation of the results in Vienna, a rigorous, quality-checked process ensures the results are correct and appropriate conclusions are derived,” said Steven Balsley, Director of the Office of Safeguards Analytical Services at the IAEA.

In the 1990s, IAEA inspectors started to conduct environmental sampling, and this has proven to be one of the most important tools used to detect undeclared nuclear material or activities. An environmental sample consists of a 10 cm x 10 cm cotton cloth that an IAEA safeguards inspector swipes across a surface to pick up millions of tiny dust particles. This dust contains information, indicating not only if nuclear material is present, but also the type (e.g. separated plutonium or highly enriched uranium), the age of the nuclear material and the presence of other materials.

“By analysing the cotton swipes that inspectors collect in the field, the IAEA can detect nuclear material at weights below one trillionth of a gram,” said Todd Mock, Safeguards Information Analyst for Environmental Sampling at the IAEA.

In 2021, the IAEA collected over 470 environmental samples. About 80 per cent of the environmental samples were analysed by 16 external laboratories that are part of the Network of Analytical Laboratories (NWAL), with the remainder analysed in Seibersdorf at the IAEA’s Environmental Sample Laboratory (ESL). Certified by the IAEA, the NWAL comprises external laboratories in IAEA Member States and at the European Commission, which supplement the work performed at the IAEA’s own laboratories in Seibersdorf.

How environmental sampling works

The analysis of environmental samples requires careful processing and highly sensitive instrumentation to not only detect trace amounts of nuclear material, but also ensure the samples contain particles only from the specified location. Before the sample collection, inspectors perform a pre-inspection check, in which they swipe their own clothing to account for traces of particles originating from the inspector collecting the sample during the sampling process.

Inspectors collect environmental samples in teams of two to reduce contamination as much as possible. One inspector handles the ‘dirty’ swipes, and the other takes care of the sampling equipment.

When the samples arrive at the laboratory, they are anonymized through a process that relabels each sample to ensure independent analysis. The samples are then screened for the presence of radionuclides. The screening results are sent to information analysts, who assign at least two laboratories to undertake more detailed analysis of the samples with specific instructions. 

There are two basic types of analysis: bulk analysis and particle analysis.

Bulk analysis techniques can detect extremely small amounts of nuclear material and are used to determine the quantities of uranium and plutonium on a swipe, as well as the average isotopic composition. Bulk analysis has been used by the IAEA since the mid-1990s and is best for detecting the presence of trace amounts of nuclear material. This type of analysis requires the entire swipe to be dissolved in a solution, which can take days. Then, highly sophisticated equipment analyses droplets of the dissolved swipe solution. On average, bulk analysis takes three to four weeks per sample. 

Particle analysis, which usually takes a few days, is used to determine the isotopic composition of uranium and plutonium in individual particles, revealing different materials and processes. This is done by vacuuming microscopic particles from swipe samples and placing them on a planchet to be analysed using precise instruments to determine isotopic information. The ESL has utilized mass spectrometers for particle analysis since 1999 and, in 2022, the IAEA installed a new large geometry secondary ion mass spectrometer to maintain its particle analysis capability at the highest level.

Following the analyses, results are uploaded to a secure database for further evaluation and analysis by information management experts at the IAEA. These results are then used, alongside all other relevant information, to support the drawing of safeguards conclusions.


October, 2022
Vol. 63-3

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