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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

UN atomic agency uses satellite feed to verify peaceful use of nuclear materials

20 July 2005 The United Nations atomic watchdog agency has started using direct satellite feeds from nuclear facilities to check that sensitive materials are not being diverted for weapons or other non-peaceful uses, executing every day operations previously performed only every three months in what it hopes will be a global network.

The first field trial connecting a nuclear power plant in Slovakia to UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna started in April, the agency reported today.

“It provides Agency inspectors with a continuous flow of information,” Massimo Aparo of IAEA Safeguards Technical Support said.

Images and electronic seal data recorded at a Slovak nuclear spent fuel pool and reactor core are now downloaded daily to the IAEA’s safeguards computer systems. The images are taken every five minutes, the data is encrypted/authenticated, then transmitted to Vienna. Inspectors review the data and determine if the plant is operating as declared.

Previously inspectors needed to travel to the nuclear facility to retrieve the data, making such a journey every three months. The results of a feasibility study for a prospective global roll-out of the use of satellites are expected by the end of the year.

“The idea is to create secure, global communication networks between IAEA headquarters, remote nuclear facilities and regional offices,” Mr. Aparo said. Such a set-up would enable several gigabytes of data to be transmitted each day to IAEA headquarters for inspectors to scrutinize.

The IAEA is now working with the European Space Agency to assess the feasibility and cost of using satellites to relay data from more than 100 surveillance systems it operates in 13 countries.

The IAEA first started using remote monitoring of selected nuclear facilities on a trial basis in the 1990´s, using telephone lines and the Internet to transmit the data, but these networks are not always reliable, especially when communicating with less developed countries that lack established telecommunications infrastructure.

“One advantage of satellites is you do not need to rely on the infrastructure of the country,” Mr. Aparo said, adding that telephone lines are also not optimal to transfer large amounts of data.

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