India debates, but IAEA cool

July 21, 2008

It turns out that while the Indian government has tied itself into knots explaining the Indo-US nuclear deal to Indian political parties, and is seeking a vote of confidence in the Parliament right now, at least some International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials seem to be a little more relaxed.

“I have not yet read the document,” commented Diane Fischer, senior safeguards analyst at IAEA, after a presentation on Monday (July 21) at the Euroscience Open Forum on how the agency tracks nuclear smugglers. A bit surprising given that entire rules are being re-written in the deal, and one would have expected at least some passing academic interest from IAEA officials in the matter.

Fisher was asked by Indian journalists about whether certain IAEA conditions on broader access to nuclear facilities apply to India-specific safeguards in the nuclear deal signed between the two countries in March 2006.

Since then, and even weeks before the signing, there has been much debate in the country about India-specific clauses in the deal, which basically allow India, which has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to buy nuclear fuel from the US for its civilian reactors. This would normally have not been permissible under the US Hyde Act.

After many a hand-wringing among strategic and nuclear science analysts over the India-specific clauses and umpteen changes in the text, officials from India’s Department of Atomic Energy went to IAEA headquarters in Vienna last week to seek approval of the deal. The board of governors at IAEA will meet on August 1 to decide on the issue.

Back home, the coalition government in India tottered, with the Communist parties withdrawing support to the coalition government.

At the time of writing the blog, the result of the Indian parliamentary debate and vote of confidence is yet to be out. And looks like not all IAEA safeguard officials are aware of what the document holds.

T V Padma, South Asia Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Atomic detectives and the mystery of garden pellets

July 21, 2008

Here is (rather was) a case straight from an Agatha Christie mystery, ripe for a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to step in and solve, at least the way a nuclear forensic scientist Klaus Mayer, from JRC’s Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU),  narrated it at the  Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona on Monday (July 21).

A telephone call about 14 pellets of radioactive material in a garden in Germany last year. Who put them there, where did they steal it from and what sinister task were they meant for?

A crack team of ‘atomic detectives’ in Germany started unravelling the mystery. They were specialists in nuclear forensics that forms the backbone of nuclear safeguards and tracking illicit trafficking of nuclear material, both causes of rising global concern.

But back to our Christie mystery first. The pellets were sent to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre – at 6.30 p.m. local time in the evening, apparently a good time for the police to send radioactive pellets to a laboratory.

It triggered a nuclear forensic investigation to identify the origin of the material and its intended use. A series of tests on the samples’ compositions, isotopes present, structure, impurities and products formed after radioactive decay gave vital clues.

The pellets contained 3.5 percent enriched uranium. It was relatively pure uranium – the degree of purity a clue to the kind of facility used. The pellets contained some fine markings on one surface and digits on the other – again a clue to the kind of reactor used. The overall conclusion was the pellets were rejects of quality control procedures.

More investigations and more clues.

The findings were referred to an international database to check when the pellets were last purified and separated. So the pellets were diverted from the atomic plant after sintering and gravity.

To cut a long story short, this one had a harmless ending. The pellets were from a German reactor. And the garden owner was under psychiatric treatment, a drug addict who ended with the pellets during some drugs dealing and decided to come clean through a telephone call.

It is not clear how or since when nuclear pellets are being traded for drugs, but maybe that can be addressed some other day. But India can vouch some strange things do happen – way back in the 1990s, a disgruntled employee at an atomic power plant near Chennai (former Madras) took away some rods of radioactive material and dumped them in the Cooum river in the city to express his irritation!!

T V Padma, South Asia Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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