Tompkins noted that the IAEA is moving away from a traditional boots-on-the-ground "checklist" approach to safeguards to one that is increasingly investigatory and heavily dependent on unattended, remotely monitored systems. This shift is driven by necessity - the number of facilities under international safeguards is increasing rapidly, outstripping the number of available field inspectors. In addition, the additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) mandates a more proactive approach to safeguards monitoring.
As background, Tompkins explained that the IAEA is a direct outgrowth of Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace and the main enabling body for the NPT. The NPT is a "grand bargain" between the original five nuclear weapons states (United States, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union/Russia and China) and the rest of the world. Under the NPT, the nuclear weapons states promise to work toward nuclear disarmament and the non-nuclear weapons states promise to forego nuclear weapons in exchange for access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and all states party to the NPT agree to subject themselves to safeguards and monitoring.
The IAEA takes essentially a "carrot and stick" approach, with the Department for Technical Cooperation offering the carrot of access to nuclear technology and the Department of Safeguards wielding the stick of monitoring and inspections. Within the Department of Safeguards are two halves, one dedicated mostly to policy work and the other focused on operations - the "inspectorate" that is in the field and gathers the data that go into the state evaluation reports - the final product of safeguards, which are fed into political machinery that determines whether or not states are meeting their obligations under the NPT.
The responsibility for developing, installing and maintaining the nuclear instrumentation, surveillance and physical protection systems at IAEA-monitored facilities falls to the Division of Safeguards Technical Support. Tompkins noted that most of his IAEA work has been in the design and deployment of non-destructive analysis systems for facility monitoring.
He then briefly described some of the projects he has worked on in Europe, Africa and Asia.
Tompkins was involved in two projects at Chernobyl, one related to the construction of a new containment structure to replace the 30-year-old crumbling sarcophagus that was hurriedly built even as the core of reactor no. 4 was still burning and another to deploy a system for unattended remote monitoring of the transfer of spent fuel rods from all four Chernobyl reactors from old spent fuel ponds to a new secure storage facility. Compounding the technical challenges, he observed that, "the difficulty in installing this system, in addition to the cold, ice, sleet and contamination, was the dosage you get from just standing around."
In Algeria, Tompkins helped design and install a reactor core power monitoring system for a heavy water experimental reactor at El Salaam, Algeria. Conditions of the safeguards agreement between the IAEA and Algeria required that the entire system be installed and made operational in just three days. Describing the Spartan working conditions in the middle of the Sahara desert, he noted that the facility where the IAEA workers were housed was called the Scorpion Hotel, because one of the first inspectors to visit the site was stung by a scorpion hidden in the bed sheets and had to be flown to Algiers for emergency medical treatment.
As a condition for Lithuania to join the European Union, two power reactors at Ignalina had to be shut down, even though they had a good operating history and shuttering them would require Lithuania to import electricity and natural gas from Russia. The first reactor was shut down in 2007 and the second in 2009. Before the second reactor was shut down, the Lithuanians wanted to burn up as much of the old fuel from the shutdown reactor in the currently operating reactor, transferring spent fuel from the one reactor to the other by railcar. This transfer had to be safeguarded with a system that would remotely monitor this and relay the data back to IAEA headquarters in Vienna. "Safeguarding this plant was a truly interesting exercise," Tompkins observed.
Tompkins concluded with a step-by-step description of a project to design and deploy a system for the unattended monitoring of spent fuel transfers from cooling ponds to dry storage at the Wolseong nuclear power plant in South Korea. This new system was driven by the IAEA's need to conserve resources by moving to unattended safeguards systems instead of human surveillance. The combination of technical issues, regulatory constraints, cultural considerations and the inevitable unexpected complications made the project particularly challenging. "The best-laid plans can - and do - fall apart when you're in the field." In the end, the system was successfully installed to the satisfaction of all parties involved, and similar systems have been deployed to power plants in Romania, Lithuania and Kazakhstan.
"It's interesting the way safeguards work on the international arena. Approaching it as an engineer, it's not a difficult technical problem. It's pretty straightforward...You have to know monitoring, continuity of knowledge, gross neutron counting...it's not rocket science, the technology is 60 years old. The real issues come from the political side actually. Every member state safeguards agreement is individual, every nation gets their own agreement. It makes things very interesting to say the least."