The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is responding quickly and actively, adjusting to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its operations. On March 11, the Agency, along with the other international organizations in Vienna, suspended all essential travel or meetings through June 1, 2020. Two days later, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi issued a video statement that “inspections safeguarding nuclear materials all over the world will not stop for a single minute.”
This is no small task given inspectors are on the road on average 100 days per year. In 2018, 721 facilities across the globe were under IAEA safeguards. That year, the Agency carried out 2,195 inspections, involving a total of 13,611 calendar-days for in-field verification. In-field verification involves inspectors taking samples and reviewing accountancy and operator records at facilities. For physical inventory verification (PIV) inspections, for example, inspectors physically observe the opening of the reactor core at nuclear power plants during refueling to verify the new core and new configuration of the spent fuel pool. At large facilities, PIVs can be incredibly complex, taking upwards of 10 inspectors 7-14 days to complete. Between physical inspections, the Agency employs round-the-clock containment and surveillance techniques (C/S), such as seals and cameras, to provide “continuity of knowledge” (CoK). The Agency’s surveillance of nearly 1400 surveillance cameras, 400 radiation and other sensors, and 23,000 seals is providing CoK during COVID-19, including in Iran.
The spread of the coronavirus complicates physical inspections as airlines have reduced flights and health restrictions issued by many countries, including Austria, require individuals entering from abroad to quarantine for 14 days. Agency inspectors are tested before they travel and may be retested upon arrival in the Member State and/or self-isolate for 14 days depending on the State’s health restrictions. Since lockdown, the Agency has been able to maintain a majority of its scheduled inspections, securing flights on remaining commercial routes, and last week, for the first time in its history, the IAEA chartered a plane. The Agency will continue to fly commercially as long as routes are available, but there may be a need continued use of chartered flights for scheduled inspections when commercial ones do not exist.
As COVID lockdowns persist, the IAEA (and its Member States) will need to innovate, particularly in techniques and technologies for remote monitoring and information sharing. The Agency has been expanding the network of remote sensors used for safeguards, capitalizing on improvements in sensor capabilities, size, and cost along with other advances in the Internet of Things (IoT). Delayed timelines between some scheduled inspections due to COVID-19 means instrumentation will need to last longer and have more storage capacity.
At the same time, not all States allow for remote electronic transmission of safeguards data across international borders due to security concerns. Some of these concerns have been heightened by COVID-19, but they are also being challenged by it. Global lockdown is demonstrating the resiliency of the Internet, but also the need for “no touch” systems to communicate and information sharing to leap beyond faxes and hardcopies. Technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain technology have the ability to increase data integrity and bridge secure rooms with secure networks while advances in robotics and IoT can strengthen CoK. All combined, these technologies provide a layered approach that can adapt to shifting risks and scale with data points.
The IAEA and its Member States are also responding to COVID-19 by providing diagnostic kits, training, and equipment to countries asking for assistance. It is also hosting a series of COVID-19 webinars, providing guidance for nuclear medicine departments and COVID-19 health workers on radiation protection. The Agency has stepped up support for nuclear facility operators, facilitating information exchange through the International Reporting System for Operating Experience (IRS) and the newly established COVID-19 Operational Experience Network.
The IAEA has been active and visible during the first weeks of the global lockdown. It has demonstrated its resilience and focus on finding solutions which is not only a testament to the Agency staff, but also to its new Director General who assumed office on December 3, 2019. During his visit to Washington, D.C. in February, Grossi highlighted his vision to “recalibrate” the work of the IAEA to pay closer attention to issues such as nuclear safety and security as well as cancer care and gender parity. COVID-19 will catapult recalibration in a number of meaningful ways, prompting the Agency and its Member States to adapt and innovate to assure the global community that nuclear material is being used for peaceful purposes even during a pandemic.