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Nuclear detectives: inspecting atoms

A team of professionals from around the world is working with governments and secret services to reduce the risk of nuclear attacks.

by Luca Longo
05 February 2020
2 min read
by Luca Longo
05 February 2020
2 min read

The nuclear inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have three different challenges on their hands: checking on nations that pose a risk (and stopping development and proliferation of nuclear weapons); monitoring terrorist groups and arms dealers to stop the transport and use of nuclear material; and, if anything goes awry and investigating radiological or nuclear attacks that it has not managed to stop.


The UN creates the IAEA

The IAEA was set up in 1957 on a UN decision. Behind it is a team of professionals from around the world, who work with governments and secret services from all countries. It is an independent agency that aims to promote peaceful use of nuclear energy and stop it being used for military ends. In 1993, a world database was set up to gather information on illegal incidents concerning radioactive material. So far, 3,068 such incidents have been recorded. Among these, 270 were certified as intentional and involving theft, smuggling or criminal use of radioactive substances. Another 904 incidents could be put down to negligence or human error. Among the criminal actions, 12 involved enriched uranium ready for atomic tests, two plutonium for nuclear tests, and four plutonium-beryllium neutron sources. It was not possible to determine the nature of another eight incidents. In these case, IAEA inspectors work wit secret services of signed-up countries to intercept and stop dangerous material. Their work is not just finding the recipient and recovering the material, but also finding out its route and provenance. The commitment and professionalism of the AIEA's inspectors in their nuclear forensics work won them the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

The author: Luca Longo

Industrial chemist specialising in theoretical chemistry. Doing scientific calculations for more than 30 years. Researching new technologies for energy. Does everything he does to its fullest.