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Celebrating 50 years of keeping nuclear materials secure

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By Tris DeRoma

Los Alamos National Laboratory marked 50 years of partnering with the International Atomic Energy Agency Tuesday in their efforts to safeguard nuclear materials worldwide with a special reception at the Bradbury Science Museum.
The reception was held in the museum’s “50 years of Supporting International Safeguards” exhibit.
A class of IAEA inspectors and their instructors joined LANL officials and employees at the event. Since 1980, LANL scientists have trained IAEA inspectors on how to identify handle nuclear materials. IAEA’s core mission is to stop the spread of nuclear weapons technology.      
“What’s really great is that the same scientists and engineers that are developing the technology the inspectors are using, help with the training when the inspectors come here to Los Alamos,” said Nancy Jo Nicholas, LANL’s associate director for threat identification and response. “We’ve got the technical experts and we’ve got access to plutonium and uranium so they can make measurements in a lab environment and get really comfortable with what they have to do before they have to go to other countries and make measurements there.”
This year, LANL will host inspectors from about 13 countries. The particular training at LANL will last about five weeks, and then the inspectors will head back to IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria, or other IAEA offices to complete their training.
One of their instructors is David Lacey, who came to LANL to learn the same course as an inspector in 2005. Lacey has since become an IAEA training officer.
To be an IAEA inspector, it helps to have a varied background, Lacey.
“There’s no readymade inspector out there,” Lacey said. “You have to be a little bit of everything. You have to be a scientist, a diplomat, and a workman, because you have to carry a lot of equipment around. You also have to be a little bit of an accountant, so if you’re looking for new inspectors you won’t find a perfect candidate. It’s a very interesting job.”
Though there are many challenges to the job he wasn’t allowed to specifically comment on, a fundamental challenge inspectors always face from the beginning has been logistics.
“Believe it or not sometimes it’s getting to the facility at the right time with the right equipment,” he said. “You have to be organized.”
Much of what the inspectors do is compare a facility’s nuclear records with what they measure in the field. Inspectors out in the field often will use instruments that were designed by LANL to detect gamma rays, heat and neutrons to make those comparisons. Satellites and instruments at the sites can also detect and be read remotely.
In the last 50 years, LANL and other national laboratories have also been able to design and create technology that has a longer shelf life and is more portable.
Part of Lacey’s job is to help the inspectors use and get familiar with the equipment used to detect radioactive material.
“They must not only be competent in using the equipment, but also recognize when a situation might not be quite right,” Lacey said.
Recognizing when a situation is “not quite right” is one of the missions of the IAEA.
For a brief time, the United States was the only country that possessed nuclear weapons. Now there are eight known countries that have nuclear weapons.
IAEA’s 200 inspectors cover all countries that have nuclear technology.
Founded in 1953, the IAEA’s primary focus is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries by ensuring countries that have nuclear technology are developing it for peaceful purposes.
Howard Menlove, a retired nuclear physicist and fellow with LANL was one of the first people hired into IAEA’s Nuclear Safeguards program 50 years ago. Now 80, he still remembers his three-and-a-half hour interview with the founder of the program, LANL Physicist Bob Keepin.
“He first wanted to make sure I had the technical skills to do the job,” Menlove said. “The next two-and-a-half hours were making sure I was motivated in terms of purpose. Keepin’s purpose was to make the world more safe from nuclear weapons and material. That was a philosophical goal of his when he formed the group. He thought that was an important attribute of any new employee.”  
Menlove still works at LANL as a part-time contractor and mentor to the younger LANL scientists and post-doctorate students. He officially retired from the lab in 2005. During his career, he designed 25 measurement systems that were used to measure nuclear materials.
The “50 years of Supporting International Safeguards” exhibit is at the Bradbury Science Museum through February. The museum is located at 1350 Central Ave. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday and Monday 1-5 p.m.