Today, at an event on the sidelines of the IAEA General Conference, participants received a demonstration of the new safeguards field verifiable passive seal – an upgrade to an important tool in verifying that nuclear material is kept in peaceful use. Taken around the world as part of an IAEA safeguards inspector’s luggage, 27 900 seals applied to nuclear material, facility critical equipment or IAEA’s safeguards equipment at nuclear facilities in 2021 were verified.
“Seals are one solution to a basic problem. Used around the world, seals are an important part of an inspector’s toolkit when verifying that nuclear material and facilities remain in peaceful use,” said Joel Hoyt, the new seal implementation project manager and Senior Project Engineer at the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards. “The new, more secure, and modernized seal, demonstrated today, is a result of an internal IAEA design and development project to streamline the verification and reporting process for inspectors, in turn increasing the efficiency in verifying nuclear material.”
IAEA safeguards are a set of technical measures to verify that States are honouring their international legal obligations to use nuclear material and technology only for peaceful purposes. To do this, one of the main tools is sealing. The new passive seal comes in the form of a device that is no larger than a coin. With it, an IAEA safeguards inspector can seal a container, a hatch or a nuclear material cask, and the inspector can return at a later date to verify whether it was opened.
A passive seal is one way to ensure the continuity of knowledge for nuclear material – if the seal is verified as having not been tampered with, the inspector knows that the material has not been touched. A passive seal also guarantees the integrity of the IAEA’s on-site verification tools and equipment.
During the event, participants were shown both the new field verifiable passive seal, how this is applied and the inspector’s handheld device, which allows the seal to be verified in situ.
The traditional passive seal, used since the 1960s, is a copper and brass seal. It is a general purpose, non-reusable, passive wire loop seal. To close the seal, a double copper cap is snapped onto the base. Both the cap and its base have unique markings on the inside surface to identify the seal. After an inspector verifies that the wire and the sealed enclosure have not been tampered with, they cut the wire and bring the seal back to headquarters for further verification.
Participants heard about how IAEA experts considered advancements in materials, modern technologies and machining techniques to design and address the requirements of an effective seal. They were also shown the result: a seal made from aluminum and polycarbonate, requiring no tools to apply, no maintenance while deployed, and no batteries or electronics to power.
IAEA experts also explained that the components of the seal have unique structure and pattern designs etched into their surfaces to ensure that they cannot be replicated or replaced without detection, as well as other tamper-indicating design features. Highlighting one of the key advantages of the new seals, Nicolette Seyffert, the new seal implementation project team member and Information Security Officer at the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards, said that they can be verified in the field – something that was not possible with the traditional copper and brass passive seal.
“Having an in-field verification technique for the seal means we have faster verification results and reduce the administrative burden,” Seyffert said. “By having an in-field customized reader, it is immediately obvious if a seal was tampered with and removes the need to bring the seal back to IAEA headquarters in Vienna.”
The in-field verification is possible with the new seal, because when inspectors attach and subsequently check the seal at a later date, they use dedicated software to input information about where it is installed, and reference photos to verify the seal. All that streamlines the inspection reporting process. The in-field verifier automatically collects data so the IAEA knows where, when and who originally attached and checked the seal – information that was previously managed manually.
The IAEA has produced several of the new seal for early use, with a planned expansion of use starting 2023. Eventually, the new field verifiable passive seal will replace all of the traditional copper and brass seals.