Ana Raffo Caiado: Bridging policy, technology to advance peaceful use of nuclear material

Countries around the world have unique languages, cultures, food, entertainment and governments. Yet, more than 170 countries are finding common ground in an unlikely field: nuclear material and science.

Each country’s government decides how to implement nuclear science for peaceful uses – such as energy, agriculture and medicine – based on international policy. For Ana Raffo Caiado, an international safeguards expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, interpreting policy and understanding nuclear science technology connects countries around the world with the means to safely and securely use these valuable materials.

While visiting the Caribbean, Raffo Caiado found herself deciphering the needs of countries looking to adapt nuclear technology for medical reasons.

“For the seasoned nuclear experts at the table, using nuclear medicine made perfect sense for a developing country,” Raffo Caiado said. “For the countries themselves, however, the threat of a nuclear incident deterred their decision because of possible adverse impacts to tourism – their main industry.”

Between language barriers and differences in understanding, Raffo Caiado recognized an opportunity to bridge the discussion of current nuclear safeguards and policy to meet the needs of all parties.

The International Atomic Energy Agency categorizes countries based on how developed their nuclear industry is. Disruption to a small economy from the misuse of radioactive sources or the risk of such sources falling into the wrong hands could put the country in a compromised position. Experts like Raffo Caiado help leaders interpret policy and recognize technology requirements to take steps toward compliance.

Raffo Caiado didn’t envision a career as a voice of neutrality between policy and technology. With a degree in international relations, she started working for the Nuclear Energy Commission in her home country of Brazil, home to a complete nuclear fuel cycle and an established state authority for nuclear matters. Through the 1990s, she and her colleagues helped Brazil build a relationship with Argentina around nuclear safeguards and established a common system of accounting and control of nuclear materials.

Because she wasn’t a career diplomat, she relied on her education to understand the nonproliferation treaty and correctly interpret the language of the nuclear field.

“You have the capability of understanding what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it,” said Raffo Caiado. She learned to respect deep knowledge of the nuclear fuel cycle for science and technology as well as an ability to interpret policy, especially across international borders, for how nuclear material would be acquired and used in-country.

Raffo Caiado worked for more than a decade with a highly technical regional safeguards organization that collaborated with partners at the US Department of Energy, specifically ORNL. Because of this work, she was invited to bring her international experience to East Tennessee. A national laboratory was a perfect fit to broaden her network with other international researchers.

“All I could say was wow, because it was like expanding everything that I had experienced during the 11 years to a magnitude that I can’t even measure,” Raffo Caiado said. “And that was my introduction to Oak Ridge, the friendly, welcoming environment with all of the kindness of the American people.”

She brought a solid understanding and experience in state and regional systems of accounting and control of nuclear materials to the lab. She supported US responses to international safeguards challenges and helped further enhance international nuclear verification regimes. ORNL provided the opportunity to conduct technical cooperation addressing safeguards challenges in various types of facilities of the nuclear fuel cycle. Being immersed in the science and research environment of a national laboratory enabled her to work in all aspects of the fuel cycle, from mining to waste disposal, including enrichment and reprocessing.

When Raffo Caiado was nominated to become a senior manager of the IAEA, she jumped at the opportunity but departed ORNL with bittersweet sentiments. Her career was advancing with a move to Vienna, but she knew she would miss her colleagues and the time she spent observing associates working in the safeguards laboratory.

Raffo Caiado’s years serving at IAEA solidified her resolve to remain neutral for the benefit of peaceful nuclear use. While at the IAEA, she became aware of the need for coordination between peaceful uses of nuclear technology and strong safeguards programs.

Because the IAEA looks to help any country achieve their goals for nuclear science, Raffo Caiado found partnerships and friendships working toward common nonproliferation goals. Her time there was fulfilling, giving her insight into the impact and application of a technology she worked with for so many years on people’s lives.

When Raffo Caiado’s tenure at the IAEA came to an end, she knew where she wanted to go: her home away from home at ORNL. She returned to East Tennessee with an invaluable international experience. She resolved to expand the reach of nuclear technology for economic development and to ensure nonproliferation commitments. Her eye is set on connecting with more countries on what nuclear technology can deliver to the people and how to leverage those benefits with formal safeguards obligations

Raffo Caiado’s career spans over three decades, but she is still working toward opportunities for growth. As leader of ORNL’s Safeguards Concepts and Implementation Measures group, she and her colleagues identify and propose significant projects to address safeguards challenges, with the main objective to strengthen and build capacities in material control and accountability.

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