IAEA details 'swipe' sampling method used to test for nuclear material

IAEA inspectors take samples from a nuclear facility to perform safeguard analysis.
IAEA inspectors take samples from a nuclear facility to perform safeguard analysis. | Courtesy of the IAEA

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this week detailed its "swipe" sampling technique utilized in the safeguard inspection process.

Samples are regularly taken at nuclear facilities internationally to verify that nuclear materials have been utilized in line with international guidelines and as reported. Some samples are evaluated at the Environmental Sample Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, a "clean" lab with pressurized, filtered air. The IAEA said the tools at the lab can detect trace amounts of uranium and plutonium as small as one trillionth of a gram.

Samples also are taken to ensure that there is no radioactive material that has not been declared by the facility present.

The method was born out of necessity following the bombing of a nuclear facility in Iraq in the early '80s. In the aftermath, IAEA officials had to improvise with what they had, so they  "swiped," or wiped down items in the destroyed facilities with cotton towels. The contaminated towels revealed remnants of nuclear material and other information.

“These activities enable the IAEA to verify that nuclear facilities have been used as declared and to build confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology,” Tero Varjoranta, deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards, said.

There are currently 18 laboratories across eight countries that can manage and test IAEA samples in addition to the Seibersdorf facility.

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International Atomic Energy Agency 1 United Nations Plaza Room DC-1-1155 NY, NY - 10017

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