More articles on safeguards ...

Scientists drop a nuclear bombshell

Lax nuclear safeguards pose a key threat for Australia and the world, write Professor JIM FALK and Dr BILL WILLIAMS.

Published in The Advertiser
22 April 2008

NUCLEAR proliferation is a key threat facing Australia. The uranium export industry is worthy of consideration in this context given that uranium is not only the fuel for electricity-generating reactors but also feedstock for nuclear weapons - the most destructive weapons ever devised.

The uranium industry and its supporters routinely claim that the safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "ensures'' that Australian uranium (and by-products such as plutonium) will not be used for nuclear weapons.

However, only a fraction of safeguards-eligible nuclear facilities and stockpiles are actually inspected by the IAEA. 
 The director-general of the IAEA, Dr Mohamed El Baradei, is remarkably frank about the limitations of safeguards. In speeches and papers in recent years, Dr El Baradei has noted the IAEA's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited'', that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities'', "clearly needs reinforcement'' and runs on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department''.

The problems with, and limitations of, safeguards are manifold. Nuclear accounting discrepancies are just one of these intractable problems. 
 These discrepancies are commonplace and inevitable due to the difficulty of precisely measuring nuclear materials. These accounting discrepancies are known as material unaccounted for (MUF). 
 This problem of imprecise measurement provides an obvious loophole for diversion of nuclear materials for weapons production. In a large plant, even a tiny percentage of the annual through-put of nuclear material will suffice to build one or more weapons with virtually no chance of detection by IAEA inspectors - if indeed the IAEA carries out any inspections at all.

Australia's uranium has resulted in the production of more than 103 tonnes of plutonium. If just 0.1 per cent of this plutonium is written off as MUF, that is sufficient for 10 plutonium bombs similar to that which destroyed Nagasaki. 
 Government agencies refuse to release MUF figures; for plutonium, it may well be significantly greater than 0.1 per cent.

In addition to IAEA safeguards, countries buying Australian uranium must sign a bilateral agreement. 
 However, there are no Australian inspections of nuclear stockpiles or facilities using Australian uranium. Australia is entirely reliant on the partial and underfunded inspection system of the IAEA.

The most important provisions in bilateral agreements are for prior Australian consent before Australian nuclear material is transferred to a third party, enriched beyond 20 per cent uranium-235, or reprocessed. 
 However, no Australian government has ever refused permission to separate plutonium from spent fuel via reprocessing (and there has never been a request to enrich beyond 20 per cent U-235). 
 Even when reprocessing leads to the stockpiling of plutonium (which can be used directly in nuclear weapons), open-ended permission to reprocess has been granted by Australian governments. Hence there are stockpiles of "Australian-obligated'' separated plutonium in Japan and in some European countries.

As for the alleged benefits of the industry, uranium accounts for just one-third of 1 per cent of Australia's export revenue. The industry makes an even smaller contribution to employment.

Claims about the greenhouse "benefits'' of nuclear power typically ignore more greenhouse-friendly renewable energy sources and the use of several types of renewables to supply reliable base-load power (for example, geothermal, bioenergy, solar thermal with storage, and sometimes hydro). Furthermore, as the limited reserves of high-grade uranium ore are used up and low-grade ore has to be used, greenhouse emissions from mining and milling uranium will become substantial.

Australia would do well to recommend a wide-ranging, independent public inquiry into the risks and benefits of the uranium industry. Such an inquiry should also consider the role of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO), as now constituted, which has, at times, offered seriously misleading claims about the uranium industry and nuclear power. For example, ASNO has claimed that Australia sells uranium only to countries with "impeccable'' non-proliferation credentials. In fact, Australia has uranium export agreements with nuclear weapon states (all of which are failing to meet their disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty), with states with a history of weapons-related research based on their "civil'' nuclear programs (such as South Korea and Taiwan) and states (including the U.S.) blocking progress on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

Other seriously misleading statements made at one time or another from ASNO include that safeguards "ensure'' that Australian uranium will not contribute to weapons proliferation, that all nuclear materials derived from Australia's uranium exports are "fully accounted for'' and that nuclear power does not present a proliferation risk. 
 While no agency should be judged simply on the basis of isolated statements, there is enough smoke to suggest that it would be sensible for any inquiry to check that in relation to the need for balanced advice, there is not a smouldering fire.

Professor Jim Falk is Director of the Australian Centre for Science, Innovation and Society at Melbourne University. Dr Bill Williams is a General Practitioner and a Vice-President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War. 


Nuclear Safeguards and Australian Uranium Export Policy

Slightly longer version of an article posted on the (pro-nuclear) Brave New Climate website
Jim Green
January 25, 2010> or <

Thanks to Barry Brook for the opportunity to contribute a post on the topic of nuclear safeguards.

Why should nuclear power proponents involve themselves in advocacy to strengthen the safeguards system? Perhaps the strongest argument is that public concern about weapons proliferation shapes as a significant constraint on the expansion of nuclear power. Here are some relevant considerations:

* Opinion polls repeatedly demonstrate a high level of public concern about WMD proliferation and national governments routinely cite WMD non-proliferation as a top-shelf national priority.

* Daily media reports about the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran reinforce public concerns about the links between the peaceful atom and WMD proliferation.

* A 2005 survey of 1000 Australians found that 56% believe that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections are not effective while barely half as many (29%) believe they are effective (1).

* A 2008 survey of 1200 Australians found 2:1 opposition to uranium exports to nuclear weapons states (2).

* The US National Intelligence Council argued in a 2008 report that: "The spread of nuclear technologies and expertise is generating concerns about the potential emergence of new nuclear weapon states and the acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups." The Council also warned of the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and noted that a number of states in the region "are already thinking about developing or acquiring nuclear technology useful for development of nuclear weaponry." (3)

There is a long history of nuclear power facilitating nuclear weapons programs (4). The direct use of nuclear power reactors to produce nuclear materials for weapons is the smaller part of the problem and has been limited to a few examples. The larger part of the problem is real or feigned interest in nuclear power providing a rationale for the acquisition of enrichment plants, reprocessing plants and research reactors and a rationale for the development of cadres of nuclear scientists and engineers whose skills can be put to use in weapons programs.

In the coming decades, motivations to develop nuclear weapons will persist and may escalate (e.g. because of the intransigence of the nine nuclear weapons states, or unwelcome developments in potential nuclear 'hot spots' such as north-east Asia and the Middle East). Claims made about the proliferation resistance of 'next generation' technology (e.g. integral fast reactors or thorium-powered reactors) are often overstated (5) and in any case nearly all operating and under-construction reactors are conventional uranium reactors. Likewise, the potential benefits of innovative institutional arrangements such as multilateral control of nuclear facilities tend to be overstated (6), and in any case dozens and dozens of proposals for multilateral or international control of nuclear facilities have come and gone over the decades (7).

Nuclear power advocates who accept the need to strengthen safeguards can act individually by making submissions to relevant government inquiries, writing to government ministers, writing letters to newspapers, etc. Better still, a loose coalition of nuclear power advocates could be established to work on safeguards and related issues. It would also be welcome if the Science Council for Global Initiatives and other such organisations would take up these issues.

Safeguards – a snapshot and some modest proposals

The IAEA is responsible for the international safeguards system. Visits to nuclear facilities by IAEA inspectors are the cornerstone of the system. At best it is an audit system involving periodic inspections of some nuclear facilities. At worst, IAEA safeguards are tokenistic (e.g. in China) or non-existent (Russia). In addition to physical inspections, other safeguards measures such as 24/7 live video monitoring have been introduced but only at a small number of facilities. For more information on the safeguards system – and protracted efforts to strengthen it – see the 'further reading' section below.

Recently-retired IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei has summed up the problems with his observations that the IAEA's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities", that efforts to improve the system have been "half-hearted" and that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department". South Australian Premier Mike Rann succinctly explained the problem in 1982: "Again and again it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first."

Readers interested in and concerned about safeguards could consider the following, modest proposals as a starting-point for your new career as a part-time safeguards activist!

1. The IAEA safeguards department is seriously underfunded (8). The problem is widely acknowledged yet it persists year after year, decade after decade. Perhaps the Australian government could be persuaded to kick in some more money and also to pursue this issue seriously in international fora.

2. Basing the IAEA safeguards system on periodic audits seems inadequate. Perhaps a minimum requirement ought to be that all nuclear facilities of any proliferation significance have a couple of IAEA inspectors permanently stationed on-site. Nuclear facilities typically employ hundreds of people so the additional costs associated with that proposal should not be prohibitive. Alternatively, permanent on-site inspectors or 24/7 live video monitoring might be set down as a minimum requirement.

3. All nuclear facilities processing Australian-Obligated Nuclear Materials (AONM – primarily uranium and its by-products) ought to be subject to IAEA inspections (i.e. the IAEA ought to have the authority to carry out inspections of those facilities). At the moment, it is a general rule that all facilities processing AONM must be subject to IAEA inspections but exceptions are made for the flimsiest of reasons.

4. Important information about safeguards is kept secret by the Australian government and there is a compelling case for greater transparency. Examples of unwarranted secrecy include the refusal to publicly release: country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium; Administrative Arrangements, which contain important information about safeguards arrangements; information on nuclear accounting discrepancies; and the quantities of AONM held in each country.

5. Something needs to be done about the stockpiling of ever-growing amounts of plutonium as plutonium separation at reprocessing plants continually exceeds its limited uptake in fast spectrum reactors and MOX-fuelled reactors. The problem could easily be addressed by suspending or reducing the rate of reprocessing such that stockpiles of separated plutonium are drawn down rather than continuing to expand. Failing that, one modest reform would be for the Australian government to revert to the previous policy of requiring permission to separate Australian-obligated plutonium on a case-by-case basis rather than providing open-ended permission.

6. A credible safeguards regime for Australian uranium exports depends on having a credible safeguards agency. Sadly, the federal government's Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) is anything but. For example, during the 2008 Joint Standing Committee on Treaties inquiry into the Howard-Putin uranium export agreement, ASNO conspicuously failed to inform the Committee that there has not been a single IAEA safeguards inspection in Russia since 2001 and instead misled the Committee with the indefensible claim that (non-existent) safeguards would "ensure" peaceful use of AONM in Russia. (Obviously the weapons genie is out of the bottle in Russia but there are other reasons for concern such as the frequency of nuclear theft and smuggling.) A detailed EnergyScience Coalition critique of ASNO concludes with a call for an independent inquiry (9) and the Australian Uranium Association has also called for an inquiry into the role and resourcing of ASNO (10). Changes are in train at ASNO with the imminent departure of its head and deputy-head. Now is an ideal opportunity to bring about much-needed reform so readers might consider writing to foreign minister Stephen Smith calling for an inquiry and for reform of ASNO.

If you want to argue for more radical reforms than those listed above, by all means go ahead! In his book 'Prescription for the Planet', Tom Blees argues that: "Privatized nuclear power should be outlawed worldwide, with complete international control of not only the entire fuel cycle but also the engineering, construction, and operation of all nuclear power plants. Only in this way will safety and proliferation issues be satisfactorily dealt with. Anything short of that opens up a Pandora's box of inevitable problems." He also argues that: "The shadowy threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorism virtually requires us to either internationalize or ban nuclear power."

Blees also argues for a radical strengthening of safeguards including the establishment of a strike-force on full standby to attend promptly to any detected attempts to misuse nuclear facilities or to divert nuclear materials.

(1) IAEA, 2005, 'Global Public Opinion on Nuclear Issues and the IAEA – Final Report from 18 Countries',
(2) Australian Conservation Foundation, November 2008 media release,
(3) US National Intelligence Council, 2008, "Global Trends 2025 – a Transformed World",
(4) See the country case studies and other literature posted at:;;
(5) Integral fast reactor proliferation risks:

Thorium proliferation risks:
(6) Vande Putte et al, 2005, 'The Real Face of the IAEA's multilaterals nuclear approaches',
(7) Briefing paper #13 at>.
(8) See for example Mohamed El Baradei, 2009, 'Intervention on Budget at IAEA Board of Governors',
(9) EnergyScience Coalition, 'Who's Watching the Nuclear Watchdog?', briefing paper #19,
(10) See p.12 of the AUA's submission #45 to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties:

Further reading on safeguards:

* IAEA: <>

* Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office <>

* Medical Association for Prevention of War <>

* Friends of the Earth safeguards section: <>

* Medical Association for the Prevention of War and Australian Conservation Foundation, 2006, "An Illusion of Protection: The Unavoidable Limitations of Safeguards", <>

* Non-Proliferation Policy Education Centre, 2008, "Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom", <>.

* Nuclear Power Joint Fact Finding Dialogue,  June 2007,  <>

Building Support for the Agencys Safeguards Mission

Henry Sokolski

Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre

Nov 03, 2010

A Presentation made before Panel 17 "Building Support for the Safeguards Mission" of the International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards Symposium "Preparing for Future Verification Challenges," IAEA Headquarters, Vienna, Austria

Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents, noted 26 years ago that the more conflicts an institution has with regard its goals and approach in managing complex high technology systems, the more these organizations are prone to disappoint in achieving their mission. Such organizations, he warned, may actually end up contributing to the very disasters they were established to prevent.[1]

Given that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has several conflicts in both its various missions and in how it must conduct it safeguards business, Dr. Perrow's analysis recommends itself when thinking about how best to build support for the IAEA's safeguards mission. With regard to other agency goals that are in tension with its safeguards mission, two come to mind.

First, the IAEA's membership has generally affirmed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) goal of the superpowers reducing their nuclear weapons arsenals. Many members have done so, however, to the point of viewing IAEA safeguards (which unlike nuclear disarmament, are clearly a part of the IAEA's legal mandate) as an unfair burden to bear so long as the superpowers retain their nuclear arms.

Second, although the agency's membership is enthusiastic about agency's mission to expand the number states enjoying peaceful nuclear energy, few, if any members are anywhere near as enthusiastic about the agency's mission to safeguard these programs. Nearly 64 states are now telling the IAEA that they want a power program on line by 2030 and are seeking IAEA assistance in this regard. This number is more than double the number of states that currently operate nuclear power plants. In addition, India's recent safeguards agreement with the IAEA has immediately increased the number of plants that the agency must be inspect. The U.S. and other major nuclear suppliers, meanwhile, believe that even more should be done to encourage the sharing of civilian nuclear energy and are working with the IAEA to assure such a result. These developments are producing a potential safeguards shortfall. In fact, the IAEA has imposed a safeguards budget freeze and agency staff has been asked to plan this year on a five percent safeguards budget cut.

As for how the agency currently conducts it safeguards business, it has a clear mandate to detect possible military nuclear diversions but will not allow a false alarm rate any higher than five percent – hardly what air travelers tolerate every day they go through security to board their planes. In addition, the IAEA must keep track of nuclear materials that are of direct use to make nuclear weapons. Yet, it keeps materials accounted for (MAF) and even some of the specifics about materials unaccounted for (MUF) from the public. The agency's safeguard department also must assure it has the resources it needs and to convince its board of governors if it needs more. Yet, it keeps its own assessments of what it costs to inspect each country's declared facilities and what it costs to inspect specific kinds of facilities confidential.

Finally, as an international institution, the agency has a clear desire to operate in as nondiscriminatory a fashion and as much by consensus as possible. Yet, because of its lack of resources to fund its safeguards activities, is drawn to focus its inspections more on facilities in "trouble" countries than those it deems are "trustworthy," which, in turn, has produced controversy.

All of these problems make it more difficult for the Agency to achieve its safeguards mission, much less to build support for it. On the other hand, these challenges are not insurmountable. At the very least, three thoughts emerge about how one might hedge against the worst (e.g., a bomb being exploded that used "safeguarded" materials). The first is political: If you are worried that your organization may disappoint in achieving one of its key missions, you can always be vague about what failure or success is in achieving this mission. This standard bureaucratic tactic is employed extensively in educational institutions and in large governments where there are few clear metrics for performance. When it comes to important security related issues, though, it is a bad habit to get into.

Fortunately, for the IAEA its metrics for minimal safeguards success are quite specific. One need only go to the IAEA glossary and look up what the listings for timely detection, timeliness detection goals, conversion times, significant quantities, etc. to see just how precise the IAEA's criteria are for achieving its safeguards mission. Whether or not these metrics (which have numerical values assigned to them) are current or accurate and whether or not the IAEA really can safeguard all that it monitors either by meeting its own standards or some more rigorous set of inspection requirements, though, is another matter. I will come back to this shortly. In any case, fudging what IAEA safeguards success or failure might be ought not to be an option.[2]

The second idea for dealing with these challenges is corporate or corporatist: It is to throw massive amounts of money in support of the organization's activities in order to assure that something succeeds in a big way and to spotlight such successes so that the organization's failures fade in relative significance. A clear advantage of this approach that it is much more attractive than freezing or reducing spending. If money is hard to come by, though, this approach may not be an immediate option. Indeed, with institutions facing difficulties when their budgets are frozen or declining while their workloads are increasing, there is natural defensive tendency to circle the wagons bureaucratically against any new idea (sound or unsound) especially if it entails more spending. Normally, in such cases, the organization's conflicting goals are accentuated to help justify why one actually lives in the best of all possible worlds – i.e., that things are not as bad as they look. This vicious cycle of reduced spending, accentuating existing contradictions and operational tensions to justify the status quo, followed by ever worsening imbalances of resources to workload, though, only reduces the organization's odds of ever reaching any higher levels of performance.

This, then, brings us to three specific recommendations.

First, it would be useful for the IAEA to increase the scope and level of transparency regarding what materials are being safeguarded and what it costs to safeguard IAEA inspected facilities and materials. The agency currently assesses what is required to inspect specific kinds of declared nuclear facilities. It also keeps track of what it costs to inspect declared facilities in each of the state member nations. Finally, it keeps track of how much MAF and MUF each state member has. What it fails to do, however, is make this information public.

The original reason for keeping much of this information proprietary had to do with fears that revealing it might jeopardize the competitive industrial edge states hoped they might gain in developing more advanced nuclear power and nuclear fuel technologies. These worries now seem outdated. Instead, the reason agency officials give today for keeping this information confidential is that revealing it might prompt a debate among member states over who should pay how much for inspections and who is more of safeguard burden to the agency. Such debates, IAEA hands argue, would produce a "whittling down" effect on the safeguards budget rather than any demand to increase safeguards funding.

None of this, however, sounds entirely right. For many years it was common for the agency to compute the number of person days of inspection (PDIs) for different kinds of declared nuclear facilities – light water reactors used to require about 5-7 PDIs/year, reprocessing plants about 1,000 PDIs/year. Given the onset of new technologies both for safeguarding and for evading safeguards, these estimates need to be updated, discussed, and debated, preferably in public. Similarly, some political entities are currently assessed for the inspections the agency conducts. Taiwan is one such example. Also, the US is assessed for the inspections the IAEA does of some of its facilities. Finally, as the world and the agency pays greater attention to nuclear security, with summits in Washington and Seoul, being as mum as the IAEA is about the specifics regarding MUF and MAF makes less and less sense.

This brings us to a second recommendation.

Armed with information about what materials and facilities require safeguarding and what safeguarding costs, the IAEA should encourage its members to consider new ways to meet these requirements. One way suggested by Tom Shea and amplified in my center's two-year study, Falling Behind, is to make the nuclear user pay for IAEA safeguarding of his nuclear goods.[3] Towards this end, it would be helpful if several major nuclear operating states that currently give the IAEA supplemental safeguards contributions started to explain that these supplemental contributions were actually based on a percentage of the amount of nuclear electrical capacity they had within their borders. This "surcharge" approach would raise safeguards monies on the basis of a fee levied as a percentage of installed, declared nuclear capacity. Once enough states used such justifications for their supplemental contributions, the agency might suggest that this approach be used in addition to the current UN-style assessment that is already made of each IAEA member state. This additional fee would be used exclusively for IAEA safeguards actitivities. Ultimately, adding such a safeguards surcharge to the existing IAEA assessment would tend to hit the US hardest followed by major European and Asian states all of whom have significant installed nuclear capacity. In some cases it would hit nuclear weapons states that currently don't have all of their civilian plants inspected by the IAEA. None the less, there would be a reasonable equity in such assessments: The nuclear weapons states have the most to gain from keeping other states from acquiring nuclear weapons so they ought to pay the most even if their own plants are not the ones being inspected.

Initially, the percentage formulas for determining this surcharge could be kept modest so as not to increase total contributions to the agency significantly. But over time the aim would be to make the formula more demanding to generate much more safeguards funding. At the very least, states like Italy that have no power reactors should not be paying more towards safeguards as states, such as South Korea, that have 20 power plants. Second and in addition to this nuclear capacity safeguards assessment, there should be special additional fees based on how safeguards-intensive specific nuclear facilities – e.g., nuclear fuel making, HWR reactor systems, etc.— might be. These add-on safeguards assessments should be made on a prorated basis derived from the number of person days of inspection such safeguards intensive systems require per year.

Finally, it would help if the IAEA could be more candid about the safeguards system by doing an assessment of what the agency can actually safeguard effectively and reliably to assure timely detection of possible military diversions. Currently, the agency's timeliness detection goals for nuclear fuel making are not being met. Instead of safeguarding these facilities by providing timely, reliable detection, which is not possible, we need to talk about how we might achieve the more modest goal of monitoring such facilities. Also, in light of 40 years of technical innovation, all of the numbers associated with the IAEA's goal of being able to detect nuclear diversions before the conversion of the material into insertable subcritical masses ought to be scrubbed. Are the conversion times, timeliness detection goals, significant quantities, etc. set four decades ago correct today? The IAEA and its membership need to reconsider this question. The aim would be to clarify routinely what criteria must be met to meet the agency's safeguards mission, what we can do to upgrade our current safeguards efforts, and where no amount of additional authority or money can assure timely detection.

Some, of course, will complain that even these modest suggestions are too controversial. Perhaps this is so. If true, however, the long term implications for the IAEA achieving its safeguards mission, much less building support for it are, at best, uninviting.

1. See Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 9 ff.

2. See, e.g., Henry D. Sokolski, editor, Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of thePeaceful Atom (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2008), pp.24-32, 100-20.

3. See Thomas E. Shea, "Financing IAEA Verification of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty," in Sokolski, ed. Falling Behind, pp. 323-36.

Looking beyond Iran and North Korea for Safeguarding the Foundations of Nuclear Nonproliferation

Former IAEA Safeguards Director Pierre Goldschmidt Calls for the IAEA to adopt automatic sanctions in response to the Department of Safeguard's limited authority and lack of cooperation and transparency from IAEA member states.

Nov 15, 2011

Pierre Goldschmidt[1]

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santanaya[2])

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards are both the principal means of verifying a state’s compliance with international nuclear obligations, as well as detecting the potential transgression of these obligations.  In the coming years, the IAEA will be asked to safeguard an increasing number of nuclear facilities, including new types of facilities (such as laser enrichment and pyroprocessing plants, floating nuclear power plants and nuclear propelled submarines) and decommissioned ones.  It will need additional funds to procure new types and more effective equipment,[3] and expertise to carry out these additional responsibilities.[4]

But the real issue does not stem from resource constraints. Even with greater human and financial resources there is nothing more the Agency would have done in fulfilling its verification mandate in Iran and North Korea.

The real constraint was identified by current IAEA Deputy Director General for Safeguards Herman Nackaerts in a July 2011 speech.   “Experience has shown,” he stated, “that proliferation risk is not only associated with the amount of declared nuclear material that a State possesses or the number and type of declared facilities. Indeed, the major proliferation challenges have arisen in States with limited nuclear fuel cycle facilities, and involved previously exempted or undeclared nuclear material.... [The safeguards] system was manifestly failing in its primary objective, namely, to detect activities that did raise potential compliance issues and proliferation concerns – such as those undertaken, for instance, in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran.”

There are two main reasons the safeguards system has been “manifestly failing.” First, the Department of Safeguards doesn’t have the legal authority it needs to fulfill its mandate and to provide the assurances the international community is expecting from its verification activities.  Second, the Department lacks the necessary cooperation and transparency from Member States of the IAEA.  Redressing both deficiencies would significantly strengthen the role of IAEA safeguards in preventing further proliferation.

Limited Legal Authorities

Under the IAEA Statute, safeguards are “designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information…under [Agency] supervision or control are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose” (Article III.5). To reach that objective, Article XII.A.6 provides that the Agency will have the right and responsibility “to send into the territory of the recipient State inspectors…who shall have access at all times to all places and data and to any person who by reason of his occupation deals with materials, equipment, or facilities which are required by this Statute to be safeguarded, as necessary…to determine whether there is compliance with the undertaking against use in furtherance of any military purpose.”

This excellent and forward looking mandate was agreed more than half a century ago. Unfortunately, in practice the commitments accepted by Non-Nuclear-Weapon States (NNWSs) under Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements (CSA)[5] and even the Additional Protocol (AP)[6] are much more limited.[7]

Under a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (with or without an AP), a state has the right to construct a uranium enrichment facility and to produce not only low-enriched uranium (LEU), but also highly-enriched uranium (HEU), or to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, as long as these activities and material are declared and placed under IAEA safeguards. This right holds even if there is no clear economic justification for undertaking these activities. However, in such a case, it seems legitimate for the international community to wonder, in light of Article III.A.5 of the IAEA Statute, whether such “legal” activities are undertaken “in furtherance of any military purpose.”

It is likely that in the future, should they decide to do so, an increasing number of NNWSs will acquire the necessary scientific, technical and industrial capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. To increase the likelihood that those states will be deterred from making such a decision—most likely under maximum secrecy since it would be a clear violation of Article II of the NPT—it is necessary that the international community be informed of any indications of nuclear weapons activities as soon as possible. Maximum IAEA scrutiny in such states should therefore be a priority.

Some possible indicators that would raise suspicion about a military nuclear program include:

  • The state has denied or unjustifiably delayed access to locations by IAEA inspectors and/or is not fully cooperating with the Agency;
  • There is a domestic enrichment or reprocessing facility in a state that has no AP in force;
  • The state is producing and stockpiling uranium enriched beyond 5% U-235;
  • The state’s military establishment is directly or indirectly involved in “peaceful” nuclear-related activities (including procurement);
  • The state has previously been found in breach or in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement;
  • There has been a nuclear weapons program in the past;
  • The state has publicly threatened to withdraw from the NPT;
  • There are serious indications that the state is acquiring or developing the non-nuclear components of a nuclear device[8];
  • The state is developing or otherwise acquiring ballistic missiles or other means of delivering nuclear warheads;
  • And there is evidence that national scientists are undertaking research on nuclear explosions or related disciplines suitable to nuclear weapons development.

Each of these individual activities may not be illegal,[9] but a combination of many of them in the same state should be a matter of concern and a reason for the IAEA to increase its verification activities in and scrutiny of that state. If the Agency is unable to do so because the state is not fully cooperating, the Secretariat should explicitly report these findings to the IAEA Board of Governors, at least in the publicly available background statement of the annual Safeguards Implementation Report (SIR).

Improving Cooperation and Transparency

All states that have been called-out by the IAEA Secretariat for failing to report nuclear material and activities in accordance with their safeguards obligations were implementing a State System of Accounting for and Control of nuclear material (SSAC), which was not fully independent of nuclear operators and state authorities, and did not provide unrestricted access and cooperation to IAEA inspectors. This has been the case in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, the Republic of Korea, Egypt and Syria. It is therefore not surprising to note that under “Areas of Difficulty in Safeguards Implementation,” the SIR for the year 2010 reports that:

The performance of State and regional authorities and the effectiveness of SSACs and RSACs [Regional Systems of Accounting and Control] have a significant impact upon the effectiveness and efficiency of safeguards implementation. In 2010, in some States SSACs still did not exist. Moreover, not all existing State and regional authorities have the necessary authority, independence from operators, resources and technical capabilities to administer the requirements of safeguards agreements and additional protocols. In particular, some States do not impose and verify proper nuclear material accountancy and control systems at nuclear facilities and LOFs [locations outside facilities] to ensure the required accuracy and precision of the data transmitted to the Agency[10].

The 2008 SIR, for instance, stated:

The Agency was informed in 2004 by Egypt’s SSAC, the Atomic Energy Authority (AEA), that it did not have the authority necessary for it to exercise effective control of all nuclear material and activities in the State. A Presidential Decree was issued in May 2006 to redefine the AEA’s authority. Ministerial Decrees were issued in October 2006 for the practical implementation of the Presidential Decree. The AEA then undertook a State-wide investigation of its nuclear material holdings, during which additional, previously unreported, nuclear material was identified, including several depleted uranium items for which Egypt subsequently provided accounting reports[11].
The Egyptian Atomic Energy Agency’s incomplete authority is an explanation but not an excuse for the lack of effective control of all nuclear material and activities in the State.

This example demonstrates once more the necessity for the IAEA Board of Governors to request the Secretariat to provide an evaluation of the effectiveness and necessary independence of SSACs, starting with those states that have previously been found to be in breach of their safeguards obligations.[12] It is as important to guarantee this independence and effectiveness (in particular in States with no Additional Protocol in force) as it is to assess those of national safety authorities.[13]
In this regard, one wonders whether an objective evaluation of the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) would conclude that this organization is sufficiently independent from the operators of nuclear facilities and from the Brazilian and Argentinean authorities, and whether it fully and satisfactorily cooperates with the Agency. This last question is particularly relevant given that the 2010 SIR notes that short notice random inspections, which are critical to verifying material flows in conversion and fuel fabrication plans, are still under discussion and not yet being implemented in Argentina and Brazil[14].

Although it is not public, it is rumored that the 2010 SIR also mentions that three states restricted Agency access, two states did not report material that should have been reported, and three states did not permit environmental sampling.  These are very important shortcomings and for the sake of transparency, as well as effectiveness, the Secretariat should name these states.

Strengthening Foundations of Nonproliferation

The objective of IAEA safeguards is to help prevent proliferation by deterring states from seeking nuclear weapons due to the risk of early discovery of a nuclear weapons program. For deterrence to be effective, states must be convinced that any deliberate noncompliance has a high probability of being detected early andthat a noncompliant state that does not cooperate fully and proactively with the IAEA to resolve the problems will inevitably face serious consequences.

Further, the Agency should be seen as exercising its existing legal authority to the full. In particular, whenever justified by the circumstances, it should promptly make use of its right to conduct special inspections at suspicious undeclared locations when states are otherwise denying access.[15]

Recently, the obligation of states to provide early design information about new facilities and the Agency’s right to verify it have been challenged by Iran’s refusal to comply with its safeguards obligations. The IAEA Director General should make it clear in a document to the Board of Governors that, when and where such refusals occur, they will be recognized for what they are: noncompliance. The Agency should not be complacent toward states that are violating their obligations.

However, the weakest link in the nonproliferation regime today is not the performance of the IAEA Department of Safeguards, but that of the international community in responding to noncompliance.

Before the next crisis occurs, generic procedures for responding to noncompliance should be discussed and agreed upon. With a “veil of ignorance” about which states might be involved in the future, such discussions should be easier and less acrimonious than in the heat of a specific crisis. Moreover, agreement upon a set of standard responses to be applied even-handedly to any state found in noncompliance—regardless of who its allies might be —would significantly enhance the credibility of the nonproliferation regime.

Against this background, a necessary first step is for the IAEA to acknowledge where it has acted inconsistently in the past. In particular, the Board of Governors should adopt a resolution recognizing that failures and breaches committed by South Korea and Egypt in 2004 and 2005 respectively, constituted cases of noncompliance with their safeguards agreements. This resolution, without seeking any punitive measure against either state, would correct damaging precedents by reasserting the impartiality and universality of procedures for reporting noncompliance as envisioned in the IAEA Statute.

For its part, the Security Council should adopt legally-binding generic resolutions that would set out a “roadmap” for responding to noncompliance. Experience demonstrates that in investigating safeguards violations in a state not fully and proactively cooperating with the Agency, the IAEA needs, for some limited period of time, enhanced legally binding authority to conduct effective inspections in that state. Such authority extending beyond that provided by the AP, can only be granted by a Chapter VII UN Security Council resolution.[16]

Furthermore, considering the precedent of North Korea’s 2003 withdrawal from the NPT, it would be wise to plan for the possibility of another state withdrawing. As a deterrent, it is essential that the Security Council adopts a Chapter VII resolution deciding that the withdrawal of a noncompliant state from the NPT is a threat to international peace and security.

In order to secure the irreversibility of safeguards on nuclear material and sensitive fuel-cycle facilities even if a state withdraws from the NPT, the Board of Governors should urge all states with enrichment or reprocessing facilities to conclude “back-up” safeguards agreements that would not terminate in case of NPT withdrawal.[17] Such a facility-specific safeguards agreement would be subsumed to the state’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement without any additional cost to either the state or the IAEA. Countries like Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, Brazil and Argentina should lead by example.

The current difficulties in resolving the problems the IAEA is facing in Iran, North Korea and Syria demonstrate the necessity to act now to make sure that when the Agency confronts the next proliferation crisis, it has the tools, authority, and political support to avoid repeating history.
If adopted, concrete measures such as those recommended above would significantly strengthen the nonproliferation regime and make a real difference in protecting against nuclear proliferation. It depends now on the political will of key governments to make this a reality before the next crisis occurs.


1. Pierre Goldschmidt is Non-resident Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Head of the Department of Safeguards.

2. George Santayana (1863-1952) was a Spanish American philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist.

3. For instance improved surveillance systems, seals and containment verification equipment, portable and resident non-destructive assay equipment, and new types of equipment to increase the IAEA capability to detect possible undeclared nuclear-related activities.

4. Including well qualified and trained safeguards inspectors with analytical skills, as well as expertise and resources to carry out disarmament verification activities at the request of Member States.

5. IAEA Infcirc/153 corrected.

6. IAEA Infcirc/540 corrected.

7.  The main areas of limitation are relating to access to information, to persons, to locations and to data and documents. A detailed analysis of these limitations and the way they should be corrected can be found in:

8. As long as no nuclear material is used, a state is entitled, without having to report to the Agency:
• to study and test the effect of shock waves on non-nuclear materials;
• to develop high explosives for high-precision applications such as shaped charges;
• to undertake theoretical studies of the effect of nuclear explosions; or
• to develop or procure neutron sources (e.g. for applications such as oil well logging) which can also be used as initiators in nuclear weapons.
The NPT prohibits manufacture by NNWS of nuclear explosive devices. It seems generally accepted that this includes the production of components which would only have relevance to a nuclear explosive device.  

9. except the first one.

10. paragraph 43.

11. paragraph 45.


13. In 2007 the IAEA undertook an Integrated Regulatory Review Service of the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). Among the 10 main recommendations made by the IAEA, almost four years before the Fukushima accident, were: "NISA should more clearly define its expectations with respect to reporting of minor inspection findings and events, in order to screen them for early identification before they become a problem"; and another one which also sounds particularly familiar to safeguards inspectors "NISA should ensure that its inspectors have the authority to carry out inspections at the site at any time, on a continual basis. This would ensure that inspectors have unfettered access to the site, to interview people, and to request the review of documents at any time rather than just at prescribed inspection times as in the law. This applies to both the construction and the operational inspection programmes."

14. paragraph 46.

15. Delaying for months or even years a request for special inspection would, in most cases, be self-defeating because the state concerned would have plenty of time to remove any incriminating evidence.

16. A draft of such a resolution and the precise description of the necessary additional IAEA verification rights can be found in Annex I of

17. A facility-specific IAEA Infcirc/66-type safeguards agreement, contrary to a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, does not lapse when a NNWS withdraws from the NPT.