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Technological Trail Blazing in Nuclear and Atomic Data

A Glimpse into the IAEA Nuclear Data Section

NDS Technology

The IAEA Nuclear Data Section (NDS) facilitates data development and dissemination to support the IAEA's mandate to foster the exchange of scientific data for the peaceful use of atomic energy. (Photo: IAEA)

As part of recognizing the 50th Anniversary of the IAEA Nuclear Data Section (NDS) on 2 June 2014, we decided to take a look into the past of this prolific IAEA Section. The history of the NDS reveals a story of a Section that over the last 50 years has blazed a trail of technological progress through its work in supporting the IAEA's mandate to foster the exchange of scientific data for the peaceful and safe use of atomic energy. Since its establishment in 1964, the NDS has used the latest technological tools, services and products to carry out its mission to collect, compile, review and disseminate nuclear and atomic data, while also serving as a coordinator and stimulus for data work worldwide.

Technological Beginnings

Shortly after the creation of NDS, the IAEA purchased its first mainframe computer in part to support the work of NDS. This machine was acquired at a time when the Head of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, estimated that the world would only have need for about five computers. Using this and the other mainframes that followed, the NDS was able to store the original text files "electronically" and then to efficiently distribute data on punch cards and magnetic tapes. This marked the initial formation of databases like CINDA, a bibliographic database still in use today, and DASTAR, which would later be converted to EXFOR, a database that, as of 2013, contains details of more than 20 000 experiments producing nuclear reaction data dating back to the 1930s.

Within NDS there was a movement over the years from the IBM mainframes to VAX mini-computers to DEC alpha servers and Linux workstations. These hardware changes allowed NDS in collaboration with other data centres to reorganize data organization from text to platform-independent software technologies. This opened new horizons in web services, standalone systems (distributed on CD/DVD-ROMs) and software development. In particular powerful graphical tools enabled efficient visualization of many types of data and more importantly, allowed them to become interactive.

By 1988, the NDS embraced the emergence of the internet to improve the efficiency of communication. This involved using email as a way to interact with other data centres for gathering and distributing data. NDS was one of the first Agency sections to use email, years before email became the universally-used communication tool it is today.

In the decades to follow, the data development and dissemination work of the NDS took full advantage of the digital reach of the internet and the move toward more compact computing facilities. By the mid-1990s, all of the NDS databases were fully transferred and publically available online as NDIS or the "Nuclear Data Information System". Similarly, the NDS launched one of the IAEA's first webpages, which, along with the online databases, served as a new avenue for NDS and data centres to interact with each other as well as provided a means to disseminate data to users worldwide.

Today and Beyond

In the most recent innovations, the NDS began to expand from its base in the Vienna IAEA Headquarters to becoming "mobile". In 2013, the "cloud" became the new home for IAEA nuclear and atomic data; the NDS was the first IAEA Section to move its web servers into the cloud, a computing model that securely distributes data to web servers worldwide, which offers a highly secure and cost-effective means for storing data.

In July 2013, the NDS launched the IAEA's first mobile application or app. The mobile Android app called Isotope Browser is a freely available app built on the most recent and reliable atomic and nuclear structure database. It provides instant and in-depth access to the different properties of isotopes, such as mass, spin, half-life and decay modes. Many of these properties play a key role in nuclear technology, research and applications.

Today, the NDS is considering new mobile applications which could further extend the reach of the large collection of nuclear, atomic and molecular data to users. These apps will complement the widespread accessibility offered by the cloud and other NDS online resources. The innovative approaches of NDS will undoubtedly continue to influence the technological direction of the IAEA and shape the future of nuclear, atomic and molecular data development, collaboration and dissemination worldwide.

Background

The IAEA Nuclear Data Section (NDS), originally known as the Nuclear Data Unit, was established in 1964 with the mission to collect, compile, review and disseminate nuclear and later atomic data, while also serving as a coordinator and stimulus for nuclear data work worldwide. Working under the supervision of the International Nuclear Data Committee (INDC), NDS tasks have also encompassed supporting Member States, organizing international meetings and discussions among data producers and users as well as acting as a nuclear data centre.

To date, the NDS has developed a large collection of databases of nuclear, atomic and molecular data that contain millions of data points as well as a wide range of authoritative publications. It has also supported many coordinated research projects and training activities aimed at building capacities for improving and accelerating data development and dissemination, as well as improve the detail and richness of data.

The NDS works with three main strands of data: atomic, molecular and nuclear. Atomic data refer to those sets of data related to the changes in the electrons in atoms, such as excitation (change of electron energy) or ionization (electron loss). Molecular data refer to two or more atoms bound together, known as molecules, which are interacting with electrons or ions. Nuclear data are sets of data related to the interactions of a particle, such as a neutron or a proton, with the nucleus of an atom, causing emission of particles.


- By Nicole Jawerth, IAEA Office of Public Information and Communication

(Note to Media: We encourage you to republish these stories and kindly request attribution to the IAEA)