IAEA Inaugurates High-Precision Spectrometer

The machine put into service on May 2 at IAEA's Environmental Sample Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, will help the agency meet verification challenges for the next 30 years, officials said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency brought a new machine online May 2 –- a high-precision mass spectrometer introduced as part of a multi-year project to modernize the safeguards analytical capabilities and purchased with financial assistance from the Federal Republic of Germany. The "multi-collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer", or MC-ICP-MS, can help the IAEA Office of Safeguards Analytical Services detect undeclared materials, IAEA officials said.

Saying itt is a significant improvement in the office's ability to identify previously imperceptible differences in nuclear "signatures," IAEA said it will allow agency analysts for the first time to detect each sample's "fall out" signature (trace quantities of plutonium or uranium that may have been carried and deposited from nuclear activities).

"More precise techniques in mass spectrometry enable IAEA scientists to detect and measure minute particles found in the swipe samples collected by IAEA inspectors, to isolate particles of enriched uranium or plutonium and measure their isotopic compositions," said Gabriele Voigt, director of the office. "This capability provides indications about enrichment processes and constitutes a powerful tool for detecting the presence of any undeclared materials and activities in states under safeguards."

The machine is housed in a dedicated cleanroom at IAEA's Environmental Sample Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria. On its first day in service, Ambassador Rolf Nikel, commissioner of the German Federal Government for Arms Control and Disarmament, and Ambassador Rüdiger Lüdeking, Germany's Resident Representative to IAEA, visited the lab for a briefing on the device.

"One of the techniques to be employed will involve bulk analysis, during which the environmental swipes are dissolved and chemically separated, then measured with the spectrometer at ultra-low levels: weights of one femtogram or below [a femtogram of material is about a million atoms, weighing less than the DNA in a single human cell]," according to an IAEA release. "The new spectrometer will enable IAEA scientists to detect plutonium at levels about ten times lower than had previously been possible using other instruments. In the majority of cases, subjecting samples to such sensitive measurement increases the agency's level of confidence in verifying the absence of undeclared activities; conversely, it also reinforces the ability to detect indications of possible undeclared experiments or plutonium production that may have occurred."

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