Illustration of three weapons inspectors looking through a large magnifying glass (State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

They work in coveralls and hard hats, as well as lab coats and protective gear. Their jobs take them to gleaming plants filled with space-age technology and smoldering neighborhoods cratered by bombs.

Their missions are to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to solve mysteries like whether it was a chemical weapons attack that killed and sickened dozens in Douma, Syria, recently.

They are the inspection teams deployed globally by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands.

Both teams operate under international mandates to hold nations to agreements not to develop nuclear armaments or use chemical weapons.

With portable equipment in suitcases, the teams head into the field to conduct routine inspections of countries’ nuclear and chemical plants or deploy on short notice after an incident such as the April 7 shelling in Douma that killed 43 people.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is autonomous but part of the United Nations system. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is independent but works closely with the U.N.

Verifying information

The atomic inspectors swab the surfaces of equipment in nuclear processing facilities to collect dust that can be analyzed to reveal whether a country has been furtively producing weapons-grade enriched uranium or plutonium.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has more than 800 inspectors and analysts from scores of countries. In a video explaining the work, inspector Pablo Alvarez says the mission is “to verify the information they declare to us is indeed the truth.”

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has a staff of 450, including 90 inspectors. It won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its work.

Its inspectors interview victims, eyewitnesses and medical personnel and may participate in autopsies. They gather chemical, environmental and biomedical samples for analysis on site and at two dozen partner labs around the world.

The 192 nations, including Syria, that are signatories to the ban on chemical weapons all have agreed to let inspectors in to do their work.

Use of chemical weapons was banned after World War I, where mustard gas and other nerve agents were widely used by both sides in battle.

Syria, after a chemical weapons attack in 2013, agreed to destroy its stockpiles of chemical munitions under supervision of international inspectors. But both the Assad regime and rebels have been accused of subsequent attacks with nerve agents that kill indiscriminately.