Training IAEA weapons inspectors

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LISA MULLINS: A new group of would-be UN nuclear inspectors has just begun their training course. They're the folks commonly known as weapons inspectors, the ones who visit nuclear facilities around the world. They've got one job. They try to ensure that nuclear technology and material are used for good things, such as energy production and medicine, and not bad things, such as making bombs. The recruits need a lot of know-how, and intuition, to make the grade. The World's Gerry Hadden sat in on a few opening classes in Vienna.

MALE SPEAKER: Okay, welcome to the agency and to the [INDISCERNIBLE] department. This is the, I think the most important course that you will go to in your career as an inspector or a staff member.

GERRY HADDEN: Class begins for this year's 18 new recruits. Deep inside the International Atomic Energy Agency's towering complex along the Danube River. These men and women have been hand picked, based on a daunting list of prerequisites, beginning with a sophisticated technical background.

HERMAN AECKARTS: If possible, a background in nuclear engineering or nuclear physics.

HADDEN: Herman Aeckarts is the inspectors' boss. Knowing the science is one must, he says. But stopping people from trying to make bombs requires more than a PhD. He, and inspector trainer Dieter Zaradnik, say inspectors must be equal parts accountant, diplomat and sleuth.

AECKARTS: Of course we want inspectors are firm and assertive.

DIETER ZARADNIK: You have to be very sensitive.

AECKARTS: Investigative.

ZARADNIK: You have to be tough.

AECKARTS: Curious.

ZARADNIK: Very polite, but pretty strict.

AECKARTS: Who can negotiate, talk with people.

HADDEN: And, not least, willing to travel, says Zaradnik.

ZARADNIK: As inspector you have to be very flexible, you have to jump around like hell sometimes. Because you jump out and you make inspection, two or three days later you come back, you have to do your report, and then you jump out again.

HADDEN: Inspectors spend about half of the year on the road. Last year they carried out more than 2,000 inspections all over the world. This year's recruits are themselves a global sampling. They're from, among other places, Indonesia, Brazil, Belarus, the US. Take Recruit X, a 32-year-old nuclear engineer from Georgia. He can't say his name. Or have his picture taken. Security is so tight at the IAEA, you can't go to the bathroom without an escort from someone with latrine clearance. So Recruit X agrees to meet after class at a local pub. He can barely contain his enthusiasm.

RECRUIT X: The first day you walk in and you see all these different people from different parts of the world. They're all speaking different languages. You really feel like you're in a movie. You couldn't tell who was a high level diplomat, who was an ambassador, who was a technical guy. It just seemed like you were suddenly in the middle of this really big thing, which is really great.

HADDEN: Recruit X could earn much more money in the private sector as a nuclear engineer, but he says he wanted to be a part of something larger.

RECRUIT X: A described it to my friends, where they said, why are you leaving your good job at this national lab doing something you really enjoy? Why would you leave that to go over and do this new job that you don't really know anything about first hand. And the analogy I used for them was that, it's as if I was a rocket scientist at NASA. I've been designing these advanced concepts for a Mars mission 30 years in the future. And then I just got an opportunity to actually be an astronaut. You're not going to pass that up. So, yeah, this is me getting the letter from NASA saying you've been selected for the astronaut program.

HADDEN: These trainees won't be asked to endure zero-gravity situations, but the pressure on them is huge. From Iraq to North Korea, their findings can influence world events. And the reception they get in the field is often hostile. At a welcoming party here at the agency, Recruit Y, a young Australian chemist, drinks a glass of champagne. He admits he find the political aspect of the job daunting.

RECRUIT Y: I guess at the moment it's a little apprehensive, but I guess this is why they do the training course. So, they give you those skills and they give you a mentor here. You don't travel by yourself. You travel with somebody else, so the first few times, I guess, are going be pretty nerve racking.

HADDEN: Iran, of course, is in a tense stand-off with the UN Security Council over an alleged nuclear weapons program. But chief inspector Aeckarts says the agency takes great pains to stay out of politics and be impartial. He points to the build up to the second Iraq War as proof of the agency's success. He says the pressure from the United States to find weapons of mass destruction was intense, but the agency, and its director Mohammed El Baradai, stuck to their findings.

AECKARTS: Against all odds and all opposition, he stood upright and said no, our inspectors have done everything they could do. We couldn't find it. We cannot support that conclusion. I think that was very courageous.

HADDEN: In 2005 El Baradai and the agency won the Nobel Peace Prize. And that peace element seems to motivate new recruits. Recruit Z is from Sudan. She says war at home pushed her to apply for work here.

RECRUIT Z: I've experienced these situations, the fighting. Controlling the use of nuclear material. It's all about this control. So it makes good use of atom, for peace. So this may save the world.

HADDEN: The agency lauds such idealism, and keeps an eye out for ulterior motives. Director Aeckarts says the temptation may be strong for a country to get an inspector on staff, not to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology, but to acquire it. So there are safeguards.

AECKARTS: For instance, we will be very careful in sending an inspector of that country to another country inspecting the facility where is that technology. So there's a number of measures that you can do to control the damage, possible damage [INDISCERNIBLE].

HADDEN: The recruits have four months of grueling training ahead. They have to digest 50 years of international law on nuclear non-proliferation. They'll train on sophisticated field equipment, and they'll be run through simulated inspections at real nuclear facilities, where resistance from plant operators can be intense. If the trainees don't buckle, they'll start work next year. For The World, I'm Gerry Hadden, Vienna.

MULLINS: And that was no ordinary reporting assignment. Read all about it on Gerry Hadden's blog post. That, along with Gerry's conversation with Recruit X from Georgia is at And Gerry returns to class next month.