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Beginnings of First IAEA Laboratory

A Nuclear Lab in Basement of Vienna Grand Hotel

The "temporary" headquarters of the IAEA in the Grand Hotel, on the Ringstrasse in central Vienna, where the Agency remained for some twenty years, until 1979.

The IAEA's role as the world's nuclear watchdog sometimes overshadows its other activities. Yet, largely out of the media glare and nuclear security spotlight, IAEA scientists have been carrying on work to apply nuclear science and technology to solve the world's developmental problems since the Agency's foundation. For as long as the Agency has been in existence, they have developed technologies that have resulted in better agricultural crops, healthier livestock, improved nuclear instrumentation, precise radiation doses and better analysis.

Today, these scientists and technicians work out of a 13 000 square metre laboratory situated in the picturesque village of Seibersdorf, Austria. Built some 50 years ago, the laboratories today may not be the most modern of facilities, but they are a far cry from their humble early beginnings.

Back in 1958, the first IAEA laboratory was in a renovated basement kitchen in downtown Vienna.

First International Nuclear Laboratory

Nuclear applications were already being used in many Member States, when the IAEA was formed, and they were being rapidly developed in others. Its Statute mandates the IAEA to advance the peaceful uses of atomic energy through scientific research, as well as through policy. From the beginning, the Agency had a responsibility to ensure that nuclear applications were used safely and efficiently, so it had to act quickly.

The Agency had just moved into the venerable Grand Hotel, a luxury hotel built in the 1870s, which had most recently been used to house Soviet military personnel. As the Agency's work gained momentum, it became obvious that the Grand Hotel would not be able to accommodate the offices, rooms and facilities that the newly-founded organization needed to carry out its mandate.

Furthermore, at its first General Conference, it was decided that the IAEA's research work needed to be done "in-house" to remain closely integrated with current nuclear research. In response, the Board of Governors recommended the IAEA urgently acquire a laboratory of its own. The Department of Research and Isotopes - as it was then known - was asked to find a permanent location for the first international nuclear laboratory. In the meantime, a provisional lab in its temporary headquarters on Vienna's historic Ring Street, with equipment for radioactivity measurements, calorimetry and radiochemical work had already been installed. With space being a premium, the most logical, convenient place to put this laboratory was in the basement of the Grand Hotel.

Early Motivation

Making nuclear applications easier and safer to use was one of the main motivations for building the laboratory. Standardization of radiation measurements, for instance, would help nuclear scientists from different countries agree on their results.

"This work was badly needed at a time when measurements made in different laboratories could be widely divergent," says Otto Suschny, the first head of the Low-Level Radioactivity laboratory.

Health-related applications with radioactive materials and methods for measuring radiation doses particularly needed internationally-accepted benchmarks that an Agency laboratory can provide.

"The need for such materials and for the assurance of the reliability of measurements had arisen mainly in the medical field in which the satisfactory development of radioisotope applications in diagnosis and therapy was seriously hampered by the uncertainty of dose determinations, in particular in the hands of inexperienced personnel in hospitals and medical laboratories, not only in developing countries," Suschny writes.

In 1961, the premises in Seibersdorf were officially inaugurated and the "basement laboratory" was resettled to its permanent home. It remains there today, where it has grown and evolved with the changing needs of Member States and the breakthroughs in the field of nuclear science and technology.

Some things have remained constant through the half a century of the laboratories' work: the pioneering spirit and the goal to apply and implement nuclear science and technology for the greater good have remained. These are deeply embedded in the laboratories today as they were when it was just a basement lab in the Grand Hotel.

Last update: 21 Sep 2022

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