Former Nuclear student ensures responsible use of nuclear material through inspections

Ania Kimberly Kaminski ‘’07, a former student of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University, is currently in her eighth year at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  She worked for six years in the Technical Support Division designing, installing and maintaining Unattended Non Destructive Assay (NDA) Monitoring Systems in nuclear facilities throughout the world.  For the past two years, she worked as a nuclear safeguards inspector where she directly performed verifications in facilities. These verifications are aimed at assuring the international community that nuclear material, facilities and other items subject to safeguards are used only for peaceful purposes. Currently, Kaminski works primarily in uranium enrichment facilities in Europe. 

“I was lucky and ready for the challenge,” Kaminski said of her job with the IAEA. “I landed in a job where there were a lot of immediate opportunities for hands on technical applications.”

Kaminski said she has always preferred hands on work to theory because of the ever changing challenges of engineering solutions in the field. An Austin, Texas, native, Kaminski began her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at Texas A&M, then transferred to electrical engineering and lastly transitioned to nuclear engineering. 

“I had a couple of friends in nuclear engineering at the time and I could see the broad applications nuclear engineering had to offer, Kaminski said. “It was at the time of the nuclear renaissance.”

Uranium enrichment is a service offered to countries all over the world.  Natural uranium is mined out of the ground at a concentration of 0.711 percent, but in the interest of making the fuel burn more efficiently, centrifuge enrichment facilities like the ones Kaminski inspects can enrich the concentration of the U-235 isotopes to a higher percentage, usually in the range of 5 percent for most commercial light water reactors. However, according to Kaminski, enrichment facilities can pose a major proliferation risk because they have the potential to enrich the uranium to become highly enriched weapons grade uranium, which would be sufficient for producing a nuclear weapon. Safeguarding these facilities falls under the IAEA’s responsibility as the nuclear watchdog of the world, ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear facilities, material and activities.

Kaminski’s work has taken her all over the world, often to remote locations where according to her, she and her fellow inspectors sometimes live a spartan existence.  Kaminski travels on average one week out of every month and has been to many nuclear hotspots, including historic spots such as Chernobyl and Semipalatinsk. 

“You learn to appreciate the basics,” Kaminski said. “Is there drinking water? Are we going to eat?  Are there bathrooms or something that can be used as a bathroom? Most nuclear facilities are in the middle of nowhere for good reason. I have been to unique and wonderful places that very few people in this world will ever see. I don’t know how many people in this world can say that they worked at a nuclear reactor in the middle of a tiger reserve.” 

According to Kaminski, there are around 1,250 facilities and locations outside of facilities under nuclear safeguards in 181 states across the world. Eight years after starting her career with the IAEA, Kaminski still credits her education at Texas A&M as a contributing factor to her success.

“I think a lot of people in the U.S. don’t realize how wide of a scope an education in nuclear engineering covers,” Kaminski said. “The range of nuclear engineering extends beyond just nuclear power reactors; it can involve anything from medical research, diagnosis and treatment, health, food irradiation, pest management, to safeguards, security and safety, and so much more. As Aggies, we have a unique nuclear program that allows for a lot of practical hands training and classes at the TRIGA reactor and in the laboratory, which gives an advantage on a lot of universities in that respect.”