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Jülich Institute becomes member of the IAEA’s worldwide Network of Analytical Laboratories (NWAL)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has appointed the Institute for Energy and Climate Research (IEK-6) as a member of its worldwide Network of Analytical Laboratories (NWAL). IEK-6 is now the first member of the NWAL dedicated to the provision of particle reference materials, which will provide fundamental and sustainable support to the IAEA's environmental sampling programme.

During physical inspections of nuclear installations worldwide, the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) may collect environmental samples by swiping surfaces at various points in a facility, in addition to nuclear material samples. The swipe samples are analysed using various high-precision mass spectrometric methods. The analysis is aimed at identifying specific signatures that allow conclusions as to the nuclear processes within a facility, and thus on the correctness and completeness of States' nuclear material declarations. An important signature that can be gained from particle analysis of environmental samples is, for example, the degree of enrichment of the isotope 235U in uranium samples. This provides information on whether low enriched uranium (LEU, <20 % 235U; fuel elements of light water reactors contain 3 to 5 % 235U) or high enriched uranium (HEU, ≥20 % 235U) has been processed in the facility. HEU is considered as so-called direct use material, i.e. nuclear material that can be used for the manufacture of nuclear explosive devices without transmutation or further enrichment.

In coping with the enormous number of analyses of nuclear material and environmental samples, the IAEA has established the Network of Analytical Laboratories (NWAL). The network currently comprises, in addition to the IAEA Safeguards Laboratories, further 24 laboratories from 12 different IAEA Member States. Candidate laboratories to be included in NWAL undergo a demanding qualification process, usually lasting several years, in which they need to demonstrate a level of technical proficiency and quality control (QC) commensurate with other laboratories within the NWAL.

With regard to the NWAL members performing analysis of nuclear or environmental samples, the IAEA pays particular importance to quality assurance, method development, and traceability of measurement results. For this purpose, the IAEA provides the NWAL members with precisely defined reference materials and carries out inter-laboratory tests with such materials. In terms of particle analysis of environmental samples, reference particles on the micrometer scale are required, but only very limited available. Therefore, the production of particle-based reference materials has been a high priority for the IAEA Safeguards Department for many years.

In 2013, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy nominated Forschungszentrum Jülich as a candidate laboratory for the IAEA's NWAL, initially for destructive analysis of nuclear materials, and from 2015, following a revised assessment of needs as well as ongoing successful research on the production of uranium-oxide particles at IEK-6, for the provision of reference materials for particle analysis of environmental samples within the NWAL.

Since then, the NWAL qualification process has been gradually completed. IEK-6 has developed and implemented a process for the production of uranium oxide particles in their controlled area. In various particle production facilities, in combination with an appropriate quality management system and during the IAEA site visits, IEK-6 has successfully demonstrated that this process meets the high requirements of the IAEA for the QC materials used by the NWAL.

The IEK-6 is now the fist and currently the only supplier of reference particles for quality control of particle analysis within the NWAL. This will ensure the further development of a sustainable external NWAL quality assurance programme for particle analysis of environmental samples.

Uranoxid-Partikel, gesehen im Rasterelektronenmikroskop.Uranium oxide particles, seen through a scanning electron microscope.
Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Dr. Stefan Neumeier (rechts) und Dr. Philip Kegler (links) neben der Anlage zur Produktion der Partikel.Dr. Stefan Neumeier (right) and Dr. Philip Kegler (left), standing next to the particle production installation
Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich