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Finding the Right Chemistry: Balancing Family and Nuclear Safeguards


Analytical chemist Urska Repinc prepares uranium samples, taken during inspections at nuclear facilities, for chemical analysis at the IAEA Nuclear Material Laboratory, Seibersdorf, Austria. (Photo: Klaus Gaggl / IAEA)

By analysing samples to verify countries’ declarations of nuclear material, Urska Repinc, an Analytical Chemist, contributes to the IAEA’s mission to verify the peaceful use of nuclear material – an activity known as nuclear safeguards.   

“I feel privileged to work at the IAEA, and I have a strong sense of responsibility for the results we report. This position allows me to use my knowledge, skills and abilities in a challenging way,” says Repinc.  

Repinc works in the IAEA Office of Safeguards Analytical Laboratories, which comprises two laboratories: the Nuclear Material Laboratory (NML) and the Environmental Sample Laboratory (ESL). Both laboratories analyse samples collected by IAEA inspectors in the field. The NML, where she works, analyses uranium and plutonium samples to verify nuclear material declarations, while the ESL mainly analyses cotton swipe samples to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material.

“Urska supports the work in almost all of the laboratory areas in NML, and she assists the other analysts in the treatment and measurement of nuclear material samples,” said Steven Balsley, Director of the Office of Safeguards Analytical Services, IAEA. “The NML is a center of excellence for the treatment, chemical processing, and measurement of nuclear material samples.”

Hailing from the town of Idrija, Slovenia, Repinc studied radiochemistry at the Jozef Stefan Institute (JSI), in the capital Ljubljana. It was there that Repinc began her work on uranium analysis.

“The way she undertook training and her research work from the very start, we realized she was a very talented analytical chemist and determined to achieve the best results,” said Milena Horvat, Repinc’s former senior colleague and current Head of the Department of Environmental Sciences at JSI.

Following advice from her colleagues in Ljubljana, Repinc visited Austria for technical training on the analysis of uranium at the IAEA before joining the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Karlsruhe, Germany, for post-doctoral research. Using uranium again, Repinc investigated the element’s ability to aid research for cancer therapy treatments.

Working with radioactive isotopes became more complicated, however, when Repinc started a family. As a radiologically exposed worker, health and safety regulations require the reporting of a pregnancy immediately. The reactions of some disappointed her, perceiving pregnancy as a potential career-stopper.

“I believe family is important. It should not be considered a disadvantage to pause your career for family reasons,” said Repinc. “In science, it’s often challenging to be at the top level while meeting familial commitments.”

To overcome this challenge, Repinc looked for a position that allowed her to meet both commitments: family and career. Her qualifications and experience proved ideally-suited for her position at the IAEA. Twelve years after her first visit to the laboratories, Repinc returned – this time as a member of the Safeguards team. As a hard-working and talented professional, Repinc managed to find the right chemistry between family and career.

The Agency has established fellowships and training programmes to increase the participation of women and youth in nuclear science. Such opportunities include the Safeguards Traineeship, and the new Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme which recently awarded fellowships to 100 female students from around the world. These efforts also support the Agency’s commitment to achieve gender parity − 50 percent women and 50 percent men − at all levels of professional and higher categories by 2025.

Read more about the IAEA’s focus on gender equality.


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