The IAEA’s Nuclear Spectrometry Laboratory: Developing Cutting-Edge Technologies for the Past, Present and Future

What is Nuclear Spectrometry?

The IAEA’s Nuclear Spectrometry Laboratory: Developing Cutting-Edge Technologies for the Past, Present and Future If human civilization is to make sustainable progress, it is essential that we better understand the ecological impact of our actions. While globalization has opened up the path of rapid industrialization to many developing countries, it is now necessary for the international community to step back and ensure that this path is not only heading in the right direction, but that the tracks left behind are not causing too much damage. To do so requires the ability to characterize the nature and spread of contamination in the air, soil and water. This is one of the many techniques being developed at the IAEA’s Nuclear Spectrometry Laboratory, where cutting-edge technology and nuclear sciences are combined to help Member States tackle the pressing environmental issues awaiting them in the 21st century.

Nuclear spectrometry involves measuring different types of radiation to assess the radiological hazard or to determine the concentration of individual chemical elements. For example, in Morocco, where air pollution is not sufficiently estimated, samples were taken from certain types of atmospheric pollutants (gaseous pollutants, particulate matter and heavy metals contents). Using x-ray spectrometry, scientists were able to distinguish which elements existed in each sample and monitor their variations over time, thus allowing them to determine the annual averages of pollution in Morocco. This is only one of the many applications of nuclear spectrometry.

By allowing for the non-destructive characterization of samples, x-ray spectrometry is also used to study cultural heritage artefacts—such as statues, paintings or small objects—in order to make inferences on their origin and authenticity. A completely non-invasive procedure, it can also map the composition of metal alloys and evaluate their deterioration processes. This information permits archaeologist and museums curators to not only better understand the history behind their discovered artefacts, but also preserve them more effectively. By using different dating techniques, such as carbon-14 dating, thermoluminiscence optically stimulated luminescence, the age of different samples can be estimated.

The “Mobile Laboratories”

The study of the nature and spread of contamination involves the analysis of large amounts of samples, and it can be both expensive and laborious to transport materials back to regional laboratories for analysis. To avoid this, the IAEA is also working to distribute portable spectrometers to Member States, which can be used for direct in situ measurements. Field portable and x-ray spectrometers allow gathering information that together with GPS information can be represented in maps allowing assessing the spread of radiological or inorganic toxic pollutants contamination, respectively.

This is particularly important when studying sites that have been contaminated by toxic materials. With a “mobile laboratory,” it is possible to perform interactive characterizations of contaminated sites with immediate real time identification of areas of high interest, thus providing an investigation of all the stages of the event as it progresses. From mining sites and industrial activities to radiation accidents and terrorism actions, portable Spectrometers are important tools for Member States to both preserve their past and ensure a safer future.

The Role of the IAEA’s Nuclear Spectrometry Laboratory

In addition to developing and distributing technology for nuclear spectrometry, the IAEA is also supporting Member States’ needs-based development efforts through coordinated research projects, laboratory trainings and the publication of state-of-the-art reports on specific topics and issues. In addition, human resources development and assistance on technical and scientific aspects are provided for a large number of technical cooperation projects in Member States. By organizing their studies around the particular needs of Member States, the IAEA is dedicated to helping countries build the capacity to adopt nuclear techniques and apply them to their particular circumstances.

For more information on the work of the Nuclear Spectrometry Laboratory located in Seibersdorf, please visit the website at: