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Contract For Work in "Desolate Moonscape"

Contract For Work in "Desolate Moonscape" Won by NZ Nuclear Scientists

IT'S hard to find a good reason to make a trip to Mauritania according to The Lonely Planet guide on the internet, which describes the West African country as, among other things, "one of the least trodden spots in the world" - but that hasn't stopped the National Radiation Laboratory (NRL) in Christchurch.

It's been awarded the contract by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) to survey the country for the best location to place one of the 80 radionuclide stations being set up around the world to monitor the treaty.

The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), to which many countries including New Zealand are signatories, is seen as a major step towards the curtailment of nuclear weapons production, and eventual disarmament. The treaty can only be effectively implemented, however, if there is a monitoring system in place to verify that weapons testing is in place, and if it does occur, to identify the violator.

Because of this need, the CTBTO is setting up 321 stations in an International Monitoring System (IMS) to track any violations. It uses four technologies; radionuclide, seismological, hydroaccoustic and infrasound. The NRL has been playing a significant role in setting up the IMS.

"Our Laboratory carried out the first survey for a radionuclide station in 1998 in the Chatham Islands, and since then the methods and protocols have been adopted by the CTBTO as standard," said Jim Turnbull, Group Manager for the National Radiation Laboratory.

As well as in Kaitaia, surveys for radionuclide stations have since been carried out by the NRL in Rarotonga, Fiji and Kiribati, as well as a survey for an infrasound station on the Chathams. The latest contract is the first outside of the Pacific, in a key location for the IMS.

"While Mauritania is rather an 'exotic' location for a monitoring site, it's also strategically very important, being both on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara Desert. The Sahara has of course already been used by the French for weapons testing in the past," said Mr Turnbull.

The $70,000 contract to carry out the work was contested internationally, and was awarded to the NRL. Two senior scientists from the laboratory, Martin Gledhill and Nanette Schliech will travel to Mauritania in January next year.

"Given the logistical necessities, such as access to electricity, line of sight to satellites, security, and ease of access, we have identified the airport as the most likely site. Both scientists will work there for a week or so under the jurisdiction and supervision of the local army, although we are advised there are no safety issues at present."

The local army will likely also arrange the collection of scientific equipment in order to avoid customs and border problems. Samples from the site will be brought back to New Zealand for analysis of background radiation in the soil and atmosphere, in order to determine if the site meets criteria for selection for a CTBTO monitoring station.

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