How Do You Find Plutonium? Go To Nuclear Inspector School

Oct 19, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 2:27 pm

No names. No pictures. No direct conversation.

And don't touch the plutonium.

Those were the ground rules before NPR was allowed a rare opportunity to see nuclear inspectors learning their craft. The inspectors came from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear watchdog.

This week, the agency will be looking on as Iran begins to scale back its nuclear program. Under the terms of a multinational agreement, Iran is to dramatically cut its uranium stockpile, mothball much of its nuclear equipment and restrict the rest to peaceful use. In exchange, the U.S. and other nations are to lift economic sanctions.

The IAEA's role in the deal is somewhere between that of a football referee and a tax accountant. Its inspectors will crisscross the country visiting labs, reactors and even uranium mines. They will meticulously catalog equipment and material to make sure it's all accounted for. If something seems off, they are the ones who will cry foul.

School Of Nukes

The inspectors NPR met were visiting Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is (ironically enough) a nuclear weapons lab in Los Alamos, N.M.

"We used to wear buttons that said, 'It's The Plutonium, Stupid,' " says Nancy Jo Nicholas, who oversees global security at Los Alamos. "That's why people come here."

Plutonium and uranium are used in ordinary nuclear power reactors all around the world. But when they are properly purified and enriched, they can also be used to make nuclear weapons.

Inspectors must learn everything about plutonium — the civilian kind, which is used in some power reactors, and also the kind used in nuclear weapons. Los Alamos has plenty of both.

Behind barbed wire and security checkpoints, the eight inspectors are working in an anonymous-looking building known as "Technical Area 66." They're an unassuming bunch, dressed in ordinary street clothes. Their accents suggest they come from all over the world.

Peter Santi, who is heading the training for Los Alamos, takes me across the classroom to pick up some pure plutonium oxide. It's sealed in a metal container about the size of a paint can, with a makeshift handle made of tape to make it easier to carry. (Dropping the plutonium "makes a loud noise and it scares everybody," Santi jokes.)

We put the can of plutonium into another container about the size of an oil drum. It's designed to catch radioactive particles flying out as the plutonium decays.

"Nuclear material, when it decays, produces very unique signatures," Santi explains. The radiation acts as a fingerprint for the substance, and it's virtually impossible to mimic.

Inspectors use the radioactive fingerprint in two ways. First, they check it to verify the kind of material they are dealing with. Then they measure it to figure out how much material is there. Santi can nail down the amount of plutonium in this can to within a gram — a fraction of a percent of the total 606-gram mass.

In Iran, inspectors will work primarily with uranium, but they will bring the same dogged precision to their measurements. In addition to measuring nuclear materials, they will take environmental samples, install cameras and conduct visual inspections, among other things.

Guarding The Globe

The IAEA actually does this work elsewhere, too. "We are inspecting all different types of facilities all over the world," says David Lacey, a training officer with the IAEA and a former inspector. The agency visits civilian reactors, fuel plants and plutonium handling facilities everywhere from Brazil to Japan to the U.S. Inspectors go in, make measurements and then compare them to the official inventory to make sure everything is accounted for. It's a challenging job even in the best of times.

"An inspector has to be a little bit of everything," Lacey says. "They need to be an accountant, a little bit of scientist, a little bit of diplomat."

The Iran deal carries its own complications. For one, Iran has not always been forthright with the IAEA, says Olli Heinonen, a former nuclear inspector now at Harvard University. Since the early 2000s, Iran has failed to disclose multiple facilities associated with its program.

And then there are the thorny global politics around the agreement. In the U.S. "there are people who don't trust the IAEA," says Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. In Iran, "They think the IAEA is biased against them," Lewis says.

Both sides may try to pressure the agency, or even individual inspectors.

Despite the challenges, both Lewis and Heinonen agree the IAEA is a capable overseer of the deal.

"They have a good track record," says Lewis, who notes that the agency has caught deception in Iran in the past, as well as illicit activity in places like North Korea and South Africa.

The IAEA has also missed some things in Iran in the past, Heinonen says. But the agency inspectors have shone a light on many hidden aspects of that nation's nuclear program, including possible work on nuclear weapons.

Heinonen says the greatest risk is that Iran has hidden entire facilities. But in the modern era, he believes, it would be hard to get the equipment, expertise and nuclear material together without anyone noticing.

"It's very difficult to build a nuclear program in isolation," he says.

Final Exam

There's no way to know whether the inspectors being trained on the day I visit will be sent to Iran. But what is clear is that the IAEA wants to be sure all of its inspectors are ready for anything.

For their final exam, the inspectors have been given a nuclear inventory from a fictional facility. Their task is to verify 12 unmarked items and to see how much plutonium is inside each one. But in this exercise, just as can happen in the real world, not all is what it seems.

"Several of the items, we've lost the declaration for," says Santi, "so they're completely unknown to the inspectors."

And have the instructors done anything else in the exercise to try to trip up the members of the class?

"Yes," Santi says.

He won't say what tricks he's using to try to fool inspectors, but whatever it is, they will have to figure it out. And the IAEA's trainer David Lacey is confident they will.

"They'll be fine," Lacey says. "They've had good teaching over the last two weeks. I can see now, looking around, that they're perfectly capable."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, Iran is set to start scaling back its nuclear program. Under the terms of an international agreement, they will cut their uranium stockpile and restrict equipment to peaceful use. And watching over all of this activity will be nuclear inspectors. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel recently got a rare opportunity to meet some inspectors and learn how they do their job.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: OK, this is going to sound a little weird, but I met the people charged with making sure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon and a nuclear weapons lab - not in Iran, but here in America.

NANCY JO NICHOLAS: We like to say it takes a weapons lab to find a weapons lab.

BRUMFIEL: Nancy Jo Nicholas oversees global security at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Los Alamos built America's first nukes, and it's a special kind of place.

NICHOLAS: We used wear buttons that said, it's plutonium, stupid. That's why people come here. We have expertise in plutonium.

BRUMFIEL: Plutonium and uranium exist in ordinary nuclear power reactors around the world. But when they are properly purified and enriched, they can be used to make nuclear weapons. Under this deal, Iran has pledged to keep its nuclear program peaceful, and to prove it, the nation will be put under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA's nuclear inspectors will crisscross the country, visiting labs, reactors, even uranium mines.

The goal will be to make sure that everything is accounted for, that nothing is being siphoned off into a secret weapons program. Past security checkpoints and barbed wire fences at Los Alamos, I arrive at a small building known only as TA 66. And here are the inspectors. They're in from Vienna, Austria for a two-week course on plutonium. They're learning everything about it, both the civilian kind and the kind used in nuclear weapons. Peter Santi is leading this training.

PETER SANTI: We split them up into small groups of two students plus one instructor to really make sure they get as much information as possible.

BRUMFIEL: Now, at this point, I should say it's extremely unusual for a journalist to be around active nuclear inspectors or weapons grade plutonium, for that matter. And so there are ground rules for my visit. I'm told these eight inspectors come from several different countries, but I don't know which ones. I can't ask their names. Santi says I can't even talk to them directly.

SANTI: What I can do for you is demonstrate how we do a measurement.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. Yeah, let's do it.

SANTI: OK.

BRUMFIEL: We walk across the classroom and pick up some plutonium - well, Santi picks it up. Rule No. 2 - no touching the plutonium.

This looks kind of - what? - like a paint can with a big radioactive marker on the side and a bunch of - what? - is that duct tape you're using to hold it?

SANTI: (Laughter) For convenience, we've put on some handles, essentially, using tape to make sure we can hold them. It's ease-of-use and ergonomically sensible.

BRUMFIEL: Plus you really don't want to drop the plutonium.

SANTI: Well, it makes a loud noise. And it scares everybody when it happens.

BRUMFIEL: All joking aside, just a few pounds of the stuff can be made into a powerful nuclear bomb, which is why the inspectors need to recognize it, even if it's hidden or mislabeled. We put the can of plutonium into another container about the size of an oil drum. It's designed to catch radioactive particles flying out as the plutonium decays.

SANTI: Nuclear material, when it decays, produces very unique signatures. So that's kind of a unique fingerprint to the nuclear material. And it's always being emitted by these materials because they are unstable.

BRUMFIEL: Inspectors use the radioactive fingerprint in two ways. First, they check to verify the kind of material, and then they measure it to figure out how much material is there. When it comes to something like plutonium, the numbers matter a lot.

So just out of curiosity, I mean, what would happen if we found out right now that there were only 500 grams of plutonium in that container when we thought there were 600?

Are you getting nervous there?

SANTI: It would be a huge problem.

BRUMFIEL: You would have to do a lot of paperwork, wouldn't you?

SANTI: It wouldn't be paperwork, it would be - yeah - next question.

BRUMFIEL: Fortunately, in this case, the plutonium is accounted for to within just a fraction of a percentage.

SANTI: The calculated declared plutonium mass for today is 606 grams, and we measured 607 grams.

BRUMFIEL: Inspectors will be bringing this kind of precision to work in Iran, though, there they will usually be measuring uranium. But it's not just Iran. David Lacey is a training officer with the IAEA and a former inspector himself.

DAVID LACEY: We are inspecting all different types of facilities all over the world.

BRUMFIEL: The IAEA visits civilian reactors, fuel plants and plutonium-handling facilities everywhere from Brazil to Japan to the U.S. They go in, make measurements, like the ones they're doing today, and then compare it to the official inventory to make sure it's all there. It's a challenging job even at the best of times.

LACEY: You know, an inspector has to be a little bit of everything. You need to be an accountant, a little bit scientist, a little bit of diplomat.

BRUMFIEL: And to keep them on top of their game, inspectors receive continuous training in courses like this. Speaking of which, it's final exam day.

SANTI: Morning. How are you doing?

BRUMFIEL: I'm well. How are you?

Peter Santi leads me back into TA 66. The inspectors have been given a nuclear inventory from a fictional facility. Their job is to verify 12 unmarked items to see how much plutonium is inside each one. But just like what can happen in the real world, not all is what it seems.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There is something else. There is a lot of background from something else.

SANTI: We have made some of the items quite challenging, as well as several of the items we've lost the declaration for. So they're completely unknown to the inspectors.

BRUMFIEL: And have you done anything really naughty?

SANTI: Yes.

BRUMFIEL: Santi won't tell me what tricks he's using to try and fool inspectors. But whatever it is, they'll have to figure it out. And the IAEA's trainer, David Lacey, is confident they will.

LACEY: They'll be fine. They'll be fine. They get a good - they've had good teaching over the last two weeks. And I can see now, looking around, that they're perfectly capable.

BRUMFIEL: The inspections in Iran will be some of the most ambitious ever attempted by the world's nuclear watchdog. I don't know if the inspectors on this particular course are involved, and I can't ask. But what is clear is that the IAEA wants to be sure all of its inspectors are ready. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.