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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 12:03 GMT
At work with the nuclear police

By Bethany Bell
BBC correspondent in Vienna

Revelations about a nuclear black market that supplied Iran, Libya and North Korea with secret technology have put the spotlight on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

President Eisenhower's 1953 UN address led to the IAEA's creation

This week, the agency's board of governors meets to discuss what the future holds for the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

But how exactly does the IAEA, with its headquarters deep in central Europe, try to stop the global spread of atomic weapons?

Detectives for the world's nuclear police force work out of a small laboratory in the Austrian countryside.

Scientists here are examining small cotton pads covered with dust.

But this is no ordinary dirt.

These samples have been brought from the floors and ceilings of atomic sites around the world.

Tell-tale particles

The IAEA's scientists, at the Seibersdorf labs between Vienna and the Hungarian border, are on the lookout for signs of clandestine nuclear activities.

Tiny particles discovered here were the first sign of a secret nuclear programme in Iran which had gone unnoticed for 18 years.

Mohammed ElBaradei
We are dealing with an emergency situation, we need to build up defence mechanisms and develop long term remedies....
Mohammed ElBaradei, IAEA chief

"With one particle," says the head of the IAEA's Clean Laboratory Unit, David Donohue, "you can get some information about what kind of nuclear material was being handled and what the intended purpose of that material was, what the history of it was.

"Uranium oxide is very commonly seen, wherever nuclear fuel is handled. You can see plutonium from areas where they have been preparing plutonium or using plutonium.

"We can see other radioactive elements too, that could be part of a nuclear programme," says Mr Donohue.

But despite such highly sensitive detection skills, the agency - and much of the international community - was caught out by revelations that a Pakistani scientist had secretly sold nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Snap checks

Libya has admitted buying blueprints for atomic weapons.

The question now is whether other countries did so, too.

The IAEA's director general, Mohammed ElBaradei and his advisors are trying to piece together the extent of the black market in nuclear bombs.

"I won't be surprised if there are new revelations - we are still trying to understand this network," says Mr ElBaradei.

President Musharraf and AQ Khan
Pakistani scientist AQ Khan (left) confessed to leaking nuclear secrets

"We are dealing with an emergency situation, we need to build up defence mechanisms and develop long-term remedies which can be put in place in the next few months," he says.

Tougher, more intrusive inspections are a key tool for the agency.

In December, Mr ElBaradei signed an agreement with Iran, which gives IAEA inspectors the right to hold snap checks of the country's nuclear sites.

But IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming says many countries have still not signed up to the IAEA's additional protocol.

"We believe it should be universal. Certainly the cases of Iran and Libya have shown that we need that added authority.

"We need to be able to inspect, not only in the places that the country tells us 'these are our nuclear facilities', but the places where we believe we need to go and see," says Ms Fleming.

Secrets under surveillance

But although the agency can sound the alarm, it depends on the political will of its member states.

Some countries, notably Iran, have been slow to come clean about their nuclear activities.

Satellite of view of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility
North Korea's nuclear ambitions continue to concern the IAEA

And then there is the question of money.

Despite its leading role in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, the agency is often strapped for cash.

Down in the basement of the IAEA, scientists experiment with the agency's remote camera system.

Cameras in bright blue metal cases have been placed in nuclear facilities around the world to monitor any suspicious changes.

In a world where nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the deterrent of choice, the discovery of more clandestine activities seems to be just a matter of time.

Timeline: Iran nuclear crisis
27 Nov 03  |  Middle East
Timeline: North Korea nuclear crisis
25 Feb 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Uncovering Pakistan's nuclear secrets
31 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Timeline: IAEA
26 Nov 03  |  Europe
Quick guide: IAEA
19 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Profile: IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei
21 Dec 02  |  Middle East

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