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IAEA Nuclear Material Laboratory Inaugurated

Largest IAEA Capital Project Ensures Highest Standards for Analysis that Underpins Non-Proliferation

H.E. Mr. Thiep Nguyen, Chairman of the Board of Governors for 2013-2014, H. E. Ms. Christine Stix-Hackl, IAEA Governor of the Host State, Austria, and IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano cut the ribbon at the Inauguration Ceremony of the new Nuclear Material Laboratory (NML), IAEA Laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria, 23 September 2013. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

In media shorthand, the IAEA is called the world's "nuclear watchdog" because of its central role in ensuring that nuclear material remains in peaceful use. The Agency fulfils an obligation under comprehensive safeguards agreements to verify the correctness and completeness of States' declarations so that there is credible assurance of the non-diversion of nuclear material from declared activities and of the absence of undeclared nuclear activities. Integral to this process is the laboratory analysis of samples of material collected by IAEA inspectors.

For over five decades, in order to ensure the timely availability of impartial, fit-for-purpose analytical processes, the IAEA has established and operated its own specialist laboratories that support its activities, enable the development of innovative technologies and provide training. A few years after the 1970 entry into force of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the IAEA expanded its system of laboratories by establishing the first Safeguards Analytical Laboratory, in a leased facility. Nearly forty years later, a modern replacement for that building has been constructed and inaugurated on the IAEA premises in Seibersdorf, Austria - the Nuclear Material Laboratory, or NML.

Enhancing Capabilities of Safeguards Analytical Services

Marking this milestone with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano on Monday, 23 September 2013 were Ambassadors and other representatives of IAEA Member States, senior officials of the Republic of Austria - the IAEA's Host State, staff members who have been involved in the laboratory's construction, and colleagues from other IAEA Departments. The Chairman of the Board of Governors, Thiep Nguyen of Vietnam, joined Director General Amano in commemorating the ongoing success of the IAEA's largest capital project. So far, this project has resulted in the extension of "clean room" laboratory space for the analysis of sub-microscopic masses of uranium and plutonium detected in dust swipe samples, as well as the flagship design and construction of the NML.

In his remarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Director General summarized the NML's purpose, "The NML will bring together, in a single building, analytical activities that are currently dispersed among a number of buildings at Seibersdorf. The NML will give us state of the art capabilities in the analysis of uranium, plutonium, spent fuel and high-activity liquid waste samples, as well as in archiving samples safely and securely. Once completed, it will have training facilities for inspectors and nuclear chemists, which will be available to visiting scientists from Member States. It will also have sufficient office space for all laboratory staff. The Seibersdorf site will comply with the Agency's guidance on the physical protection of nuclear material, as well as with IAEA nuclear safety standards. It will also meet Austrian requirements in these areas."

The Director General thanked the Member States for their active and generous support, in particular, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the European Union for their generous financial assistance for the ECAS project. In addition, the Director General extended on behalf of the IAEA his thanks to the Government of Austria for its support as an "exemplary host country" and for generously making land available, as well as the State of Lower Austria for building the new road that will serve the main entrance. He also expressed his appreciation for the cooperation of the senior officials from Seibersdorf and the people of Seibersdorf, as well as the colleagues at the neighboring Austrian Institute of Technology.

Anticipating continuing growth in the amount of nuclear material under IAEA safeguards worldwide as well as innovations in analytical techniques and instruments, the IAEA designed and constructed the NML to be adaptable and expandable. The building is conceived, in conjunction with its supporting site infrastructure still under construction, to meet international standards and guidelines for personal safety and the physical protection of nuclear material. IAEA Member State expertise has been essential in the conceptualization and equipping of the facility and will support the validation of its analytical results.

Science in Support of Non-Proliferation

After a phased transition of functions from the old building to the new one over the coming 12-18 months, safeguards samples taken by Agency inspectors will be analyzed in the NML. Samples subject to analysis principally contain uranium and plutonium collected for the purpose of nuclear material balance accountancy, but the NML will process radioactive swipe samples as well. Specialized techniques and instrumentation in analytical chemistry, radiometry and mass spectrometry will be used to determine the elemental and radionuclide composition of samples.

In conducting this analysis, the IAEA will continue to apply strict quality control to ensure that confidence in the results is maintained. In order to maintain strict confidentiality, each sample arrives at NML in an anonymous, bar-coded container accompanied by a set of analytical requests. After analysis, safeguards evaluators compare the NML analysis results with the information declared by the State in question and facility from which they came. The results will either affirm the consistency of the Agency's findings with the State's declaration or identify inconsistencies that require clarification.

Modern, Efficient Facilities on a Coherent Campus

The construction of the new safeguards analytical laboratories and the transfer of nuclear material analysis to the new IAEA premises in Seibersdorf motivated the Agency to undertake broader improvements to its presence on the Seibersdorf site. For example, a new arrival building and traffic control lanes, served by a new municipal road being constructed by the State of Lower Austria, will improve the security and efficient operation of all IAEA facilities.

Renovating Laboratory Capacity

At this opportune moment and based on growing Member State demands, the Director General has launched a new, parallel project for the Renovation of the IAEA Nuclear Sciences and Applications Laboratories (ReNuAL). These laboratories are co-located with the Safeguards laboratories on the Seibersdorf site. The aim of the ReNuAL initiative is to ensure the long-term availability of laboratory services that the IAEA Member States require of the Agency in the areas of food and agriculture, human health, terrestrial environment and nuclear instrumentation. These important capabilities in nuclear science will then function even more efficiently alongside the safeguards laboratories on an integrated IAEA campus.

Last update: 26 July 2017