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Ensuring Reliable Measurements with IAEA Reference Materials

This vial of Bikini Atoll sediment, containing radionuclides released during nuclear weapons testing, is one of the IAEA's Reference Materials stored at the IAEA's Marine Environment Laboratories in Monaco. (Photo Credit: H. Nies/IAEA)

Precise and consistent analytical measurements are vital for our daily lives. International trade, environmental protection, consumer safety and health care rely on accurate data that is comparable and based on a universally accepted system of units. This is why the scientific community uses "Reference Materials" -exact standards that can be used to control measurement instruments and to ensure quality.

The IAEA specializes in environmental reference materials. In fact, the IAEA is the world's largest supplier of reference materials for radionuclides in different 'matrices', such as fish, plant, soil, water or other compositions and origin. Some of these IAEA reference materials function as international measurement standards. For more than 50 years, the IAEA has provided reference materials to laboratories world-wide to help them ensure that proper nuclear analytical techniques are applied to achieve accurate, trustworthy and reliable results.

Bridging the Gap

Scientists in developing countries normally have no access to many of the existing reference materials, which are expensive to use. The IAEA, therefore, supports technology transfer to developing countries and serves as a low cost provider of these materials for laboratories in developing economies.

"The Agency provides equipment to Member State laboratories, and it focuses on quality assurance, quality control and calibration means, " Manfred Gröning, Head of IAEA's Terrestrial Environment Laboratory, said. "The IAEA is bridging the gap for developing countries that do not have easy access to commercial reference materials. "

The IAEA also provides inter-laboratory comparisons and proficiency tests that Member States' laboratories and radionuclide analysis training programmes can use in quality control and validation procedures.

"Such support helps to ensure that the results of measurements in our country gain the trust of the international community, " said Lucilena Monteiro, a symposium participant and Junior Technologist at the Nuclear Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Expanding the Service

Currently, Member States are requesting the IAEA to produce new reference materials and to assist in improving the distribution of the existing reference materials said Hartmut Nies, Head of the IAEA's Radiometrics Laboratory in the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. In particular, several Member States asked the IAEA to analyse a large number of food and environmental samples in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. Some also asked for support in developing their own laboratory capabilities for this purpose. "Milk is one of the most relevant pathways after a nuclear accident with fresh fallout, " Nies noted.

Milk is a crucial component in many diets around the world. If exposed, milk is likely to be contaminated by radioactive iodine and caesium and other radioactive substances within the first days after a radioactive release. Since it is easy to sample and analyse in liquid or dried form, it is a useful for analysis following a radioactive release.

To learn about the transfer of radionuclides into the food chain as a result of the Fukushima accident, Japan used the Agency's samples of powdered milk produced in the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, Nies added.

Enhancing Knowledge

Competent laboratory analysis relies upon reference materials and a broad knowledge base, which the IAEA helps to build and sustain. For many years, the IAEA has been actively involved in the International Symposia on Biological and Environmental Reference Materials, or BERM, and in June 2012, the Agency organised the BERM symposium for the first time.

'BERM 13', the largest in the series with 202 scientists from 54 Member States participating, was held from 25 to 29 June 2012 at the IAEA Headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Discussions focussed on reference materials for nutrition and safety, emergency preparedness and recent emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and biotechnology. BERM 13 also addressed future trends and needs, including the role of reference materials in lowering trade barriers, in particular for developing countries.

Partners in Metrology

During the meeting, the IAEA and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" to mark more than 50 years of cooperation in the field of metrology.

"The agreement lays the groundwork for further cooperation, which in the near future should result in an international convention to approve the "Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water 2" as a main calibrant for stable isotope ratios worldwide", Gröning said. "This will guarantee this measurement scale to the same level as the kilogram prototype sample that defines all mass measurements. This material would be one of the highest metrological standards for all measurements worldwide for the next 50 years. "


The IAEA established its analytical quality control services in the early 1960s to support Member State laboratories using nuclear analytical techniques. Initial activities focused on the preparation of environmental reference materials containing anthropogenic radionuclides. These reference materials were characterized for their radionuclide content through laboratory intercomparisons involving a core group of up to 20 specialized laboratories.

The IAEA distributes about 100 different reference materials and maintains a customer base of about 3 000 members. Each of these reference materials is characterized for analytes belonging to one of the following groups: radionuclides, organic contaminants, stable isotopes, trace elements and methyl mercury. Laboratory Reference Product activities are coordinated by three IAEA laboratories: in Seibersdorf, Austria, the Terrestrial Environment Laboratory, and in Monaco, the Radiometrics Laboratory and the Marine Environment Studies Laboratory.

To date, the IAEA has provided 29 grants (worth a total of 52,800 USD) to finance the participation of scientists from developing countries at the BERM 13 Conference.

Last update: 27 Jul 2017

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