Finding the right chemistry: balancing family and nuclear safeguards

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By analyzing samples to verify countries’ nuclear material declarations, Analytical Chemist Urska Repinc contributes to the IAEA’s mission to verify the peaceful use of nuclear material – an activity known as nuclear safeguards.

“I feel privileged to work at the IAEA and have a strong sense of responsibility for the results we report. This position allows me to use my knowledge, skills and abilities in a stimulating way, ”says Repinc.

Repinc works within the IAEA’s Office of Safeguards Analysis Laboratories, which includes two laboratories: the Nuclear Materials Laboratory (NML) and the Environmental Samples Laboratory (ESL). Both laboratories analyze samples collected by IAEA inspectors in the field. The NML, where she works, analyzes uranium and plutonium samples to verify nuclear material declarations, while ESL primarily analyzes cotton samples to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material.

“Urska supports the work in almost all of the NML laboratories, and she assists other analysts in the processing and measurement of samples of nuclear material,” said Steven Balsley, director of the Bureau of Analytical Safeguards Services, IAEA. “The NML is a center of excellence for the processing, chemical treatment and measurement of samples of nuclear material.”

Originally from the town of Idrija, Slovenia, Repinc studied radiochemistry at the Jozef Stefan Institute (JSI), in the capital Ljubljana. This is where Repinc began his work on uranium analysis.

“The way she undertook her training and research work early on, we realized that she was a very talented analytical chemist and determined to get the best results,” said Milena Horvat, former senior colleague at Repinc and current head of the environmental sciences department. at JSI.

Following the advice of his colleagues in Ljubljana, Repinc traveled to Austria for technical training on uranium analysis at the IAEA before joining the European Commission’s Joint Research Center in Karlsruhe, Germany, for post-doctoral research. Using uranium again, Repinc studied the element’s ability to aid research for cancer therapy treatments.

However, working with radioactive isotopes became more complicated when Repinc started a family. As a radiologically exposed worker, health and safety regulations require immediate reporting of a pregnancy. The reactions of some disappointed her, seeing the pregnancy as a potential obstacle to her career.

“I believe family is important. It shouldn’t be seen as a disadvantage to put your career on hold for family reasons, ”said Repinc. “In science, it is often difficult to be at the highest level while respecting family commitments.”

To overcome this challenge, Repinc looked for a position that allowed him to meet both commitments: family and career. His qualifications and experience have proven to be perfectly suited to his position at the IAEA. Twelve years after his first visit to the labs, Repinc has returned – this time as a member of the safeguards team. As a hardworking and talented professional, Repinc has managed to find the right chemistry between family and career.

The Agency has established fellowships and training programs to increase the participation of women and youth in nuclear science. These opportunities include the Safeguarding Internship and the new Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Program which recently awarded scholarships to 100 female students from around the world. These efforts also support the Agency’s commitment to achieve gender parity – 50% female and 50% male – at all levels of professional and higher categories by 2025.

Learn more about the IAEA’s focus on gender equality.

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