Strengthening Nuclear Safeguards
Urgent action is needed to shore up the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to detect nuclear weapons programs and safeguard peaceful nuclear programs.
As events in Iran and elsewhere illustrate, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is confronting a crisis in its ability to detect nuclear weapons programs and to safeguard peaceful nuclear programs. This crisis stems from a number of factors: discriminatory rules in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), inadequate application of nuclear safeguards where needed, limited authority for the IAEA to investigate possible clandestine nuclear programs, personnel rules that limit access to the best-qualified inspectors, and lack of technical resources and funding. All of these factors can be altered in ways that will strengthen the IAEA and help it do a better job.
Safeguards subject civilian nuclear programs to inspection and monitoring. By doing so, safeguards shed light on a country’s nuclear activities and can sound an alarm if suspicious activities are occurring.
Most countries have allowed intrusive inspections into their nuclear programs because they stand to gain in two respects. First, by opening up these programs, countries obtain access to external suppliers of nuclear fuel, reactors, and other essential technologies. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 45-nation group of leading nuclear suppliers, have agreed to condition sales of nuclear fuel and technologies on non–nuclear weapon states’ acceptance of full-scope safeguards on their nuclear programs. Second, as part of this bargain, countries under safeguards help assure their neighbors that they are not making nuclear explosives.
Unfortunately, safeguards agreements have loopholes, and some countries have exploited them to develop nuclear weapons programs. Although the IAEA has plugged many of these gaps, better safeguards are needed. Moreover, the need for safeguards improvements will become more urgent if there is a major expansion in nuclear energy. This expansion seems likely; in just the past two years, some two dozen countries have expressed interest in acquiring their first commercial nuclear power plants. This projected major growth in nuclear facilities will place increasing demands on IAEA safeguards.
Standardizing the safeguards rules
President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations on December 8, 1953, helped give birth to the IAEA and to modern safeguards. Attempting to lift the shroud of secrecy on nuclear technologies, which were mainly confined to the few major powers that had developed or were developing nuclear weapons, he envisioned an international agency that would encourage the use of peaceful nuclear energy throughout the world. That same agency, which became the IAEA in 1957, was also entrusted with safeguarding these technologies.
The first safeguards agreements were strictly bilateral arrangements between the seller and buyer states. The IAEA’s role was limited to monitoring the use of the purchased technology, typically a nuclear reactor. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, safeguards were not required on all aspects of nuclear programs in all countries. The NPT, which came into force in 1970, made safeguards more comprehensive and applied them more globally. But because the nations that already possessed nuclear weapons would not accept mandatory safeguards, the NPT applies different standards to different categories of countries.
The NPT established three such categories. The first includes the five countries defined as nuclear weapon states because each had tested a nuclear explosive device before January 1, 1967, the cutoff date in the NPT. The countries are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The treaty defines any other country as a non–nuclear weapon state. More than 180 countries falling under that second definition have ratified the NPT. Three others—India, Israel, and Pakistan—make up the third category: countries that have never signed the NPT. Not coincidentally, all three now possess nuclear weapons.
Each of these categories is safeguarded differently, and these differences create vulnerabilities within the safeguards system. The triune standard undermines the NPT’s purposes: decreasing the likelihood of nuclear weapons use by placing as much weapons-usable nuclear material as possible under firm control while also monitoring and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to new states.
The NPT does not require permanent safeguards on the nuclear weapon states. But the non–nuclear weapon states that have ratified the NPT are required to place their entire nuclear programs under permanent comprehensive safeguards. The three states that have not signed have applied safeguards only to specific nuclear facilities that were acquired from outside suppliers.
The nuclear weapon states can accept voluntary safeguards on parts of their nuclear programs—and they should. If the nuclear weapon states apply safeguards voluntarily, they will help protect their nuclear material from thieves and terrorists. They will also assure non–nuclear weapon states that they will not use declared civilian nuclear material in weapons programs. (For instance, the United States has voluntarily allowed the IAEA to verify that highly enriched uranium declared excess to the U.S. weapons program was converted to material that can’t be weaponized.)
The nuclear-armed states should also establish permanent monitoring of as many of their civilian nuclear facilities as possible. Furthermore, they need to remove all of the excess nuclear material from nuclear weapons programs permanently, either by turning it into nuclear fuel for civilian reactors or by securing it against theft.
In addition, the United States and Russia should implement the trilateral initiative begun in 1996 with the IAEA. Under this initiative, both countries committed to place tens of tons of weapons-origin plutonium under permanent monitoring and verification by the IAEA. But after the United States and Russia spent several years working out and agreeing to the legal and technical details of the verification, the Bush administration decided not to implement the initiative because it did not believe this activity would strengthen the nonproliferation system.
But this argument is wrong for three reasons. First, requiring that the excess weapons-usable highly enriched uranium and plutonium be under continuous real-time monitoring would provide additional security against thieves or terrorists. Second, leading by example would help create an international norm that would further convince nuclear-weapon–capable states such as Brazil and Japan to accept rigorous monitoring of their nuclear programs. Third, permanent safeguards on and monitoring of nuclear weapon states would support one of the main purposes of the NPT: decreasing the likelihood of nuclear arms races. With this in mind, the United States and Russia along with the other nuclear-armed states, including India, Israel, and Pakistan, should continually reevaluate how much nuclear material they need in their weapons stockpiles and place all of the excess material under permanent monitoring as verified by the IAEA.
For more than 30 years, India, Israel, and Pakistan, along with the non–nuclear weapon states, have generally been subject to restrictions on the use of externally supplied nuclear technologies. The international community needs to maintain these restrictions. In reaction to India’s so-called peaceful nuclear explosive test in 1974, the United States helped form the NSG, which has established and implemented guidelines for commerce in “trigger list technologies.” The updated 1992 guidelines require all NSG members to sell these technologies only to countries that have applied safeguards to all of their peaceful nuclear facilities.
However, this mandate conflicts with the NSG’s interest in encouraging business in these technologies. Illustrating this tension, the U.S. State Department’s fact sheet on the NSG notes that “NSG Guidelines aim to ensure that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or explosive devices while not hindering such trade.”
India’s nuclear ambitions illustrate the problem. Because the United States, the world’s oldest democracy, wants to foster nuclear as well as non-nuclear commerce and establish a stronger strategic relationship with India, the world’s largest democracy, the Bush administration has asked the NSG to make an exception for India. India has kept almost all of its civilian nuclear facilities outside of safeguards and thus has not been eligible for nuclear supplies from NSG states. Nevertheless, Russia has taken advantage of a grandfather clause in the NSG guidelines to sell nuclear reactors to India. Because Russia and India signed a contract before the 1992 tightening of the NSG guidelines, Russia has been building two reactors at Kudankulam, India. Signed in July 2005 but not yet ratified, the controversial India-U.S. nuclear deal seeks to bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream by having it place more, but not all, of its civilian reactors under IAEA safeguards. Once this step is taken, the NSG states would then consider accommodating more nuclear trade with India.
However, the Indian government has resisted placing permanent safeguards on those facilities. It wants to be treated like a nuclear weapon state and thus be subject only to voluntary safeguards, which it interprets as giving it the option of removing safeguards from a facility that is protected at present. For instance, if India wants to increase its stockpile of nuclear explosive material, it may decide to take one of the proposed safeguarded civilian reactors out of safeguards in order to make plutonium for weapons. But such action would defeat one of the purposes of safeguards, which is to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. If India cannot accept permanent safeguards on its selected facilities under the deal, the NSG and the United States should discard the deal.
The Indian deal highlights the politics that surround nuclear weapons and safeguards. Possession of nuclear weapons is linked to ultimate political power at the United Nations (UN). The UN Security Council has five permanent veto-wielding seats, all occupied by the victorious powers after World War II. Because they were also the first countries to develop nuclear weapons, veto power in the Security Council is therefore in the hands of the five nuclear weapon states. For decades, New Delhi has made clear that it believes India, as the second most populous country and a major Asian power, deserves a permanent Security Council seat. But to bestow that seat now would appear to reward India for having developed nuclear weapons.
Reformation of the UN Security Council should happen soon and should break the perceived linkage between nuclear capability and permanent representation. Major non-nuclear regional powers such as Brazil, Japan, and South Africa should be offered permanent seats along with India. That move would signal to other non–nuclear weapon states that playing by the nonproliferation rules can bring great political power. Restructuring the Security Council does not directly strengthen safeguards, but granting more power to non-nuclear states would give the council greater credibility when it has to rule on charges of non–nuclear weapon states’ noncompliance with safeguards agreements.
Striving for universal compliance
The NPT requires non–nuclear weapon states to complete a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA within 180 days after treaty ratification. Thirty states have not complied. Sixteen of the 30 are nearing completion of an agreement. Many of the remaining 14 joined the NPT several years ago; most are developing countries, many in Africa. They are confronting crushing poverty and related concerns, so nuclear safeguards agreements are not a high priority.
To hasten compliance, the IAEA published an action plan in September 2007. One proposed action would apply peer pressure to convince more states to conclude comprehensive safeguards agreements. For example, Japan, a leading nuclear power producer with a strong commitment to nuclear disarmament, has hosted regional workshops on the benefits of safeguards. Other member states with safeguards agreements should emulate Japan, working closely with the IAEA to convince all nations to complete these agreements.
Most countries do not have nuclear power programs or own significant amounts of nuclear materials. The IAEA, through agreements called small-quantities protocols (SQPs), has allowed countries with small amounts of nuclear materials—that is, less than would be needed to make a nuclear weapon—to be subject to safeguards inspections that are far less intrusive than those carried out under a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement. Perhaps most worrisome with respect to inadequate safeguards agreements is the group of countries (for example, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states) that have SQPs but that have also professed the desire for nuclear power programs.
The IAEA needs to obtain greater access to these states’ nuclear programs. Recognizing this need, the IAEA Board of Governors in 2005 passed a resolution to require SQP countries to provide early design information for proposed nuclear facilities and to reiterate the IAEA’s right to conduct inspections in these states. To create an incentive for these states to comply, the IAEA and nuclear supplier states should also link technical assistance on nuclear power development to the SQP states’ enacting comprehensive safeguards agreements that go beyond the minimal SQP.
Despite the usual meaning of the term “comprehensive,” comprehensive safeguards agreements, as traditionally conceived, have not been systematic enough. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s, comprehensive safeguards agreements applied only to declared nuclear materials and facilities in states that had such agreements. Because the IAEA was not required to make a systematic assessment of whether a state had undeclared material and facilities, those activities could be concealed from IAEA inspectors. Iraq, for example, did just that until the end of the 1991 Gulf War. After the U.S.-led coalition forced the Iraqi military out of Kuwait, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for Baghdad to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs. Nevertheless, the IAEA inspection team found evidence that Iraq was trying to build a nuclear bomb despite having inspected Iraqi declared nuclear facilities throughout the years leading up to the war.
To close this loophole, the IAEA Board of Governors in 1997 enacted an additional protocol for comprehensive safeguards agreements. It requires the IAEA to assess the entire nuclear fuel cycle: uranium mining, uranium enrichment, nuclear fuel production, plutonium reprocessing, and the handling of spent nuclear fuel. It also requires the IAEA to determine whether a state has any undeclared nuclear facilities and materials.
Since 1997, the IAEA has been pressing states to agree to a new safeguards standard that includes the comprehensive safeguards agreement plus the additional protocol. So far, fewer than half of the world’s countries have adhered to the additional protocol, although a majority of the major nuclear power producers have joined it. Brazil, a nuclear power-producing state that has recently finished building a uranium enrichment plant, has refused to ratify the additional protocol, citing concerns about possible industrial espionage by intrusive IAEA inspections at this plant. In December 2007, IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei visited the plant to try to allay Brazil’s fears. This visit may eventually result in Brazilian adherence to the additional protocol. Brazil, as a leading state in the developing world, can help apply peer pressure on states such as Argentina and Mexico that have yet to complete the additional protocol. Peer pressure is important because the more countries that enforce this tougher safeguards system, the less political cover states of concern will have to refuse. The best example currently is Iran’s refusal to halt the uranium enrichment program that could lead to weapons as well as nuclear power.
But other pressure and incentives are also needed. An existing incentive is that states passing the rigorous additional protocol inspection can then apply for a less intrusive inspection system called integrated safeguards. Although integrated safeguards can save the IAEA money, the agency should resist the tendency to overlook the system’s potential for countries to develop nuclear weapons in the future. Thus, the IAEA should conduct periodic reviews of states in which the political and security dynamics are changing, which will help it assess the need for more rigorous inspections.
To provide another incentive for states to enact the additional protocol, President Bush in 2004 recommended that the NSG make it a mandatory condition for the sale of nuclear technology. Unfortunately, many NSG states have opposed this proposal because it could obstruct their nuclear sales. Nonetheless, because this proposal is in the larger security interests of all states, the NSG should enact Bush’s recommendation.
Shoring up IAEA authority and capacity
The IAEA is governed by a board of 35 members, including most of the world’s nuclear energy– and weapons–producing states, meaning that the IAEA safeguards department is charged with monitoring the same members that make up its governing board. The board also includes developing states representing all geographic regions. To reach a majority vote, often a two-thirds majority for significant issues such as budgeting decisions, the major powers need to convince enough developing states to vote their way, and vice-versa.
This creates a balance of power of sorts but can also result in political gridlock. According to its mission statement, the IAEA “is guided by the interests and needs of member states,” a dictate that can conflict with its role as the world’s nuclear watchdog. Not wanting to bite the hand that feeds it, the IAEA is often deprived of the authority and resources it needs to investigate possible safeguards violations vigorously.
Because of these political constraints, the board has usually been reluctant to exercise its existing authority to order a special inspection. In 2007, when news reports and satellite images suggested that Syria might have received help from North Korea in building a clandestine nuclear reactor, the board should have used this authority, but it did not. Meanwhile, Syria has reportedly taken steps to hide evidence of a suspect building that was bombed by Israel. If the board had used its authority in a timely fashion, Israel might not have decided it needed to take the law in its own hands and use military force.
The board also needs additional authority to give it greater access to people associated with nuclear programs. Governments have blocked many nuclear scientists from talking to the IAEA. Moreover, despite the requirement in the additional protocol to assess whether a state has undeclared nuclear facilities, the IAEA has not made a serious enough effort to gain access to universities where significant nuclear research has taken place. The Board of Governors should give the safeguards department the authority to investigate any persons and locations with relevance to nuclear programs.
Also, the IAEA needs greater access to information that could reveal nuclear black markets. These clandestine markets, by their very nature, crisscross national boundaries. In light of the illicit market created by Pakistani A. Q. Khan to sell designs, materials, and equipment that could be used to build nuclear weapons, the IAEA has formed a special unit “to investigate, document, and analyze worldwide nuclear activities.” But this new unit has only a handful of analysts. The IAEA should ensure that this team has sufficient qualified personnel. To further enhance this new capability, states should provide the IAEA with greater access to data on nuclear transfers among companies and states. In particular, intelligence agencies, while protecting sources and methods, should share enough information with the IAEA to point out potential violations of safeguards. For instance, the CIA penetrated Khan’s black market but kept the IAEA in the dark about this activity for years.
The IAEA should train more safeguards inspectors to detect subtle signs that a country may have a weapons program. Partly because the IAEA does not have access to nuclear weapons design information and does not want non–nuclear weapon states to obtain access either, there are few weapons experts on call at the agency except those from the nuclear weapon states. Safeguards analysts should look for signs of conventional high-explosive testing; such testing is necessary for nuclear weapons design verification.
Although the IAEA recently has been broadening its investigatory scope in Iran to examine non-nuclear activities that could support a weapons program, the agency has not done this type of investigation for many other countries, even those that have applied the additional protocol. These broader investigations will cost more money, but the IAEA board should nevertheless give the safeguards department this improved ability to detect clandestine weapons programs.
Furthermore, the IAEA needs greater capacity to examine the complete nuclear fuel cycle. Encouragingly, the safeguards department is using its new “think tank” to help develop these capabilities, as well as calling on the services of the Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation. But member states, especially the United States, should invest more in R&D to support these efforts. For example, the U.S. national laboratories have been investigating continuous monitoring of the uranium enrichment level in individual enrichment centrifuges. But more technical work is needed to prove this concept in an actual enrichment plant.
Matthew Bunn of Harvard University has also recommended adapting technologies used in commercial businesses. For example, Wal-Mart uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags for continuous tracking of its inventory of costly items such as high-definition television sets. Nations could use RFID tags to monitor containers of nuclear material. Other enhanced capabilities include ground-penetrating radar that can detect hidden facilities, commercial satellite imagery that can help verify a country’s declarations, encoded long-distance transmission of verification data that can allow the agency to determine the near–real-time status of nuclear materials, and wide-area environmental sampling that can disclose clandestine facilities.
Providing sufficient resources
The safeguards system is a highly technical field that requires exceptionally competent scientists and engineers. Without the best-qualified personnel, the IAEA cannot do a world-class job. It should therefore revise its outdated personnel rules that are hurting the agency’s ability to hire and retain these people. It can take years for a safeguards inspector to learn the various ways in which a state might try to hide weapons-related activities. However, IAEA personnel rules require people to rotate from job to job every seven years and to retire by age 62. In addition, these rules limit the safeguards department’s ability to offer long-term contracts. The IAEA safeguards department has attracted top-notch technical people, but some of the best and the brightest in the field are reluctant to accept such restrictive hiring practices. These problems were documented in a 2006 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
For many years, one of the IAEA’s major financial impediments was donor countries allowing the regular budget to increase only to cover the costs of inflation, with no real growth. The zero real growth restriction was lifted in 2003, but until that happened, the IAEA had to rely on voluntary or extra-budgetary contributions to pay for any additional activities. Although such contributions have certainly helped the agency, this funding system does not provide a reliable way to ensure more safeguards inspections and capabilities over the coming decades.
Without more funding, the IAEA will not be able to make full use of any additional capabilities or keep pace with expanding nuclear capacities. During the past 20 years, the growth of nuclear material stockpiles and the number of nuclear facilities in dozens of countries has substantially outpaced the IAEA safeguards budget. For instance, from 1984 to 2004, this budget roughly doubled to about $105 million (including voluntary contributions from leading member states). But the amounts of nuclear explosive material increased almost sixfold—enough to make more than 10,000 bombs. Moreover, the number of facilities that handle this material has nearly tripled; there are now more than 900 such facilities, distributed among dozens of countries. If the much-discussed worldwide nuclear energy renaissance actually occurs, the budgetary gap could grow much wider in the coming decades.
Since the real-growth restriction was lifted in 2003, the safeguards and total IAEA budgets have grown; for 2006, the latest year in which complete figures are available, the safeguards budget was about $125.5 million, including $10.5 million in extrabudgetary contributions, and the total agency budget was about $327 million, including $36 million in extra-budgetary contributions. Still, member states have not provided sufficient increased funding to meet the current and projected safeguards workload.
Thomas Shea of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has recommended that an equitable system of safeguards funding could involve each nuclear power–producing country contributing its share of the budget based on its proportional use of total global nuclear energy. To be fair, in addition, nuclear-armed states that place excess nuclear materials under IAEA verification should pay for those monitoring costs. As a precedent, the United States paid for the IAEA’s verification that U.S. excess highly enriched uranium was converted to material that cannot be weaponized.
Fortunately, the IAEA’s leadership is taking steps to close the budgetary gap. At the July 2007 board meeting, El Baradei bluntly told the board that the agency risks becoming less than world-class if additional resources are not provided. At the November 2007 board meeting, he received a report from the Safeguards Analytic Laboratory at Seibersborf, Austria, underscoring the urgent need for funds to replace this decrepit facility. This laboratory is internationally renowned for unique technical capabilities in analyzing and preparing samples for safeguards missions, but the budgetary impasse led to IAEA member states not devoting adequate funds to ensure its continued functioning. To remedy this and other safeguards funding shortfalls, El Baradei has convened an external panel of former senior government officials to determine how much money is needed, especially in light of the projected global nuclear power expansion. According to comments from IAEA staff, it is possible that when the panel issues its report in late 2008, it could call for a 10-fold increase in the present safeguards budget.
Even armed with the recommendations of this high-level panel, El Baradei and the safeguards department still confront an uphill battle. Efforts to raise the safeguards budget will probably result in demands from developing states to raise the technical cooperation budget. They argue that if the IAEA imposes greater safeguards scrutiny on them, they should receive additional technical assistance in the use of peaceful nuclear technologies; for example, in medicine and agriculture. Although the potential amount of increased funding in both areas looks relatively small (tens of millions of dollars compared to the multibillion-dollar defense budgets of many developed countries), some countries in the developed world will resist providing these funds because they do not want to make international organizations such as the IAEA more powerful. However, these countries should recognize that a strengthened IAEA safeguards system supports their interests in reducing the likelihood of more nuclear-armed states. Member states should implement a more equitable funding system along the lines of Shea’s recommendation.
A strengthened safeguards system is crucial for securing international security. However, it will not provide enhanced security without the political will to act when there is a clear safeguards violation. The IAEA is not a police force; it does not have enforcement authority. The UN Security Council plays that role. But, as the present situation with Iran has illustrated, powerful council members such as China and Russia have been reluctant to back strong sanctions partly because of concerns about hurting their commercial ties with Iran. Nonetheless, both of these countries have joined the United States and other council members in passing resolutions endorsing limited sanctions while calling on Iran to suspend suspect nuclear activities.
Although it is unclear at this writing whether the Iranian nuclear dilemma will be resolved peacefully, the lesson learned to date is that at a minimum the UN Security Council needs to spell out the possible consequences of safeguards violations. Security Council members will not want to predetermine their enforcement actions, but as Pierre Goldschmidt, a former deputy director of the IAEA, pointed out in a 2007 report, the Security Council should at least specify in advance the steps that countries charged with violating safeguards agreements should take. Those steps should include suspending suspect activities while the charges are being investigated and providing greater access to the IAEA inspectors.
Pierre Goldschmidt, “Priority Steps to Strengthen the Non-proliferation Regime,” Policy Outlook, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2007 (http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/goldschmidt_priority_steps_final.pdf).
IAEA, IAEA Safeguards: Staying Ahead of the Game, 2007 (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Safeguards3/safeguards0707.pdf).
IAEA, Plan of Action to Promote the Conclusion of Safeguards Agreements and Additional Protocols, September 2007 ().
Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom, 2007 (http://www.npec-web.org).
Charles D. Ferguson (email@example.com) is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations.