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Wed, 15.01.2003
pte20030115043 Politics/Law, Science/Technology
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Seibersdorf lab examines Iraqi samples for IAEO
Computer controlled technology able to detect smallest amount of uranium
Seibersdorf: high tech tests for IAEO
Seibersdorf: high tech tests for IAEO
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Vienna, Austria (pte043/15.01.2003/20:49) - The decision on whether to go to war against Iraq may well be decided on 27 January when a small team of eight scientists at a lab in a tiny Austrian village make their report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The team at the Seibersdorf lab are working round the clock to examine just 13 samples from Iraq to test Saddam Hussein's claims that his country does not have a secret nuclear weapons programme.

Iraq provided thousands of pages of documentary evidence by the December 8 deadline to prove that it does not have a nuclear weapons programme, but the IAEA admits it is at Seibersdorf that the truth of this claim will be put to the test. Dust samples wiped from windows and floors are being subjected to a barrage of high tech tests, with a decision on whether to declare war resting on the accuracy of the work.

Dr David Donohue, the head of the IAEA Clean Laboratory Unit in Seibersdorf providing the sterile environment crucial for clear and objective analysis, said: "If its there we will find it. No matter how small the amounts of uranium or plutonium are in the samples, we have the resources here to track it down."

"The inspectors choose the site where they are taking samples from of course. But we analyse them, and guarantee whatever the samples contain, we can find it. It's a lot of responsibility, but we do not look at these samples as any different from all of the other work we do because we check everything to the very highest standards. The only different factor with these samples from Iraq is the time factor."

The Seibersdorf lab, located in a remote eastern region of Austria, is the first port of call for all the samples taken by the United Nation's weapons' inspectors in Iraq. Some 45 miles south-east of Vienna near the Hungarian border, Seibersdorf has just 1,200 residents and is located behind a range of mountains, the Leithagebirge. In the lab the Iraqi cotton swipe samples are tested in a sterile environment - mainly for uranium and plutonium. Dr Donohue said the pieces of cotton are still undergoing various initial tests to determine which particles they contain.

"When the sample first arrive, we are carrying out some very preliminary tests such as x-ray fluorescence spectrology and gamma spectrology to see if there is some measurable amount of uranium or radioactivity." The amount of uranium found then determines whether a more detailed test needs to be done. But the scientists at the Seibersdorf lab make no decision on what to test further. They liaise at every stage with the IAEA in nearby Vienna and file daily reports to allow IAEA chiefs to decide whether to look in closer detail.

Computer controlled technology such as the electronic microscope are able to detect even the smallest amount of uranium that holds the answer to the question of whether Saddam Hussein offers a nuclear threat. Inspectors are supposed to handle samples with gloves, and the cotton swipes are double-bagged to avoid cross-contamination.

Maria Kirchner, who compiled the sample kits for the weapons inspectors, said: "The kits contain six cotton swipes that are packed in plastic zip bags that are then put in larger plastic bags to make sure they are not contaminated. Every kit that leaves Seibersdorf has to be completely clean."

David Donohue stressed the need to avoid contamination was of the utmost importance: "Should we find traces of nuclear material in the kits when they are returned, Iraq will blame us first and say we messed the tests up. So we have to work extremely carefully and document everything we do."

Every sample is also examined by IAEA support research centres in different countries and the results have to match. David Donohue said: "Inspectors took six swipes at each site which were sent to various labs. We expect results to be a double checked. We don't take the information on our samples seriously until they are confirmed by another lab. "Even then we are leaving it to other people to decide what it means."

But David Donohue said that should Iraq be in the possession of nuclear mass destruction weapons, their analysis would reveal their existence. "I believe that the inspection process and the analysis of the samples are really very powerful. Nuclear material can't deteriorate with time, it can't evaporate, it just stays there. So it is really the question of whether inspectors take a sample where it exists - because if they do, we will find it." (newsfox-special Iraq)

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Contact: Mike Leidig
Phone: +43-1-81140-319