Nuclear safeguards for a new nuclear age

By Charles D. Ferguson | December 18, 2007

The commercial nuclear age started on December 2, 1957, when the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania began operating–the first use of a nuclear power plant dedicated solely to peaceful purposes. Five months earlier, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was founded with a dual mandate–promote the peaceful uses of atomic energy and prevent its military uses. Ever since, the tension inherent in this mission has strained and constrained the application and evolution of IAEA safeguards.

Safeguards comprise a set of nuclear material accountancy and surveillance tools and techniques that are supposed to help ensure that a country’s civilian nuclear program remains peaceful. The first formal safeguards agreement wasn’t established until 1961, and throughout the 1960s, uranium enrichment was exempt from safeguards agreements. (A prevailing belief during that time was that developing countries wouldn’t be able to master the advanced technology of uranium enrichment–a false pretense given Pakistan’s ability to enrich uranium in the late 1970s.) The primary concern was that these countries could divert spent nuclear fuel from reactors to reprocessing plants where weapons-usable plutonium would be extracted. Thus, safeguards focused on reactors and reprocessing plants.

Moreover, the countries that built the first uranium enrichment plants were the original nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, Britain, and the United States). Since they already possessed the Bomb, there wasn’t concern about them using peaceful nuclear programs to make fissile material. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, codified the legal status of these countries as “nuclear weapon states,” meaning they could choose to impose voluntary safeguards on parts of their nuclear programs. Any other country that signs the NPT is legally a “non-nuclear weapon state.” Under the NPT, these states are required to reach a safeguards agreement with the IAEA within 180 days of signing the treaty. But while requiring inspections of uranium enrichment plants, only a country’s declared nuclear facilities could be examined under the safeguards agreements developed soon after the NPT came into force. Consequently, a state could maintain undeclared facilities that the IAEA couldn’t access.

This loophole allowed Saddam Hussein to undertake an undetected nuclear weapons program during the 1980s. At Tuwaitha, Iraq’s main nuclear site, declared facilities were next door to undeclared facilities. After the U.S.-led coalition forced Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that required Baghdad to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs and formed an international team of inspectors to ensure the dismantlement took place. The nuclear inspection team found evidence that Iraq was close to building a nuclear weapon, which, in 1997, led the IAEA Board of Governors to approve the Additional Protocol.

The Additional Protocol requires the IAEA to assess the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium mining, uranium enrichment, nuclear fuel production, plutonium reprocessing, and the handling of spent nuclear fuel; it also requires the IAEA to determine if a country has any undeclared nuclear materials or activities. To do so, it allows inspectors to ask for short-notice access to facilities. But despite being characterized in the media as a “snap inspection,” the period of notification is usually 24 hours–except when inspectors are already present at a site, at which time they can ask for access within two hours, or even less time if “exceptional circumstances” exist. Yet, in practice, carrying out even 24-hour advance notice inspections presents a challenge because a country can impose petty barriers such as a delay in processing inspector visas or roadblocks that slow access to a facility.

Also, numerous states resist or refuse to adhere to the Additional Protocol. For example, the IAEA learned about a uranium enrichment plant Iran was building at Natanz and a heavy water plant and heavy water research reactor it was constructing at Arak when the National Council of Resistance of Iran outlined these activities during an August 2002 press conference. Although Iran wasn’t under the Additional Protocol, it still was required to report certain activities such as experiments with uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. At the IAEA’s request, Iran voluntarily applied the Additional Protocol after more probing investigations began. But access became impeded in February 2006 when Tehran suspended application of the Additional Protocol. While the newly released U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran reports “high confidence” that Tehran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 because of international pressure, the NIE makes clear that Iran is continuing to acquire the latent capability to build nuclear weapons because of its enrichment activities.

This certainly won’t be the last time the international community faces such a conundrum. Many other Arab, Southeast Asian, and Latin American nations have also recently said they want to develop nuclear power. So how can safeguards once again evolve to ensure that an unprecedented number of countries possessing nuclear technologies doesn’t result in an unprecedented number of proliferants?

Some analysts doubt that the IAEA will ever be able to detect the diversion of nuclear explosive material from peaceful applications. In particular, this summer, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) published the results of a two-year study entitled, “Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom”. It took a fresh look at the fundamentals of IAEA safeguards and found that the IAEA has yet to admit that “although it can monitor these dangerous activities [enrichment and reprocessing], it cannot actually do so in a manner that can assure timely detection of a possible military diversion.”

Ideally, the removal of this material from peaceful applications should be detected in less time than it would take to convert that material into a nuclear weapon. Starting with metallic forms of plutonium, highly enriched uranium, or uranium 233, the conversion time is estimated at 7-10 days. (A metal is the optimal chemical form for nuclear weapon parts.) Starting with the less than optimal chemical forms of oxides and irradiated nuclear fuel, it would take up to a few weeks or months to make weapons-usable components.

As the NPEC report discusses, the IAEA hasn’t met these goals. In particular, each year, the IAEA cannot account for several weapons-worth of nuclear material at some fuel-making plants, including uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities. Most likely, this material is stuck in piping or in other relatively inaccessible locations. But because of IAEA manpower shortages and the resistance of many states on allowing frequent inspections, the number of inspections are inadequate to detect the conversion of nuclear material into weapons components.

In essence, the NPEC report asks for bluntness from the IAEA about its limitations. Specifically, it recommends that the IAEA Department of Safeguards and national governments assess what facilities can be safeguarded and which can only be monitored. Monitoring activities such as periodically counting nuclear material stockpiles can at least point to diversions after the fact. Therefore, the NPEC study recommends that the IAEA rededicate itself to doing a better job of monitoring nuclear materials.

To meet this goal, the growth of the safeguards budget would need to keep pace with the increase in nuclear materials and fuel-making facilities–a gap that has grown over time. From 1984 to 2004, the IAEA safeguards budget roughly doubled to about $105 million, but the amounts of nuclear explosive material expanded almost sixfold–enough material to make more than 10,000 bombs. In addition, the number of facilities that handle this material has almost tripled to more than 900.

This disparity worries IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. At the 2005 Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, he drew attention to the sorry state of the world’s priorities when he noted that the annual safeguards budget is comparable to the payroll of the Washington Redskins football team. This summer, he told the IAEA Board of Governors that the agency risks becoming less than world class if more resources and funds aren’t provided for safeguards. For example, the IAEA’s esteemed, but aging, Safeguards Analytical Laboratory is experiencing equipment breakdowns because of inadequate preventative maintenance funds. Considering that during the next few decades nuclear power could grow significantly, ElBaradei has called for a high-level panel of outside experts to assess funding needs in 2008. Agency sources indicate that the panel could recommend a tenfold increase in the budget.

But states have been pushing back on raising the safeguards budget. States in the developing world link safeguards funding to technical cooperation program funding, which assists states in using nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes beyond generating electricity (most notably, in agriculture and medicine). Further resistance comes from parts of the developed world because some developed countries oppose giving more financial power to international organizations. While a substantial political challenge remains to convince these countries that empowered international organizations can serve their interests, a more equitable funding system could at least fairly distribute the safeguards funding burden. As Thomas Shea at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory recommended in a companion paper to the NPEC study, each state’s contribution to the safeguards budget should be proportional to its nuclear energy use.

While funding is vitally important, a larger question presents itself: What authorities and capabilities does the IAEA need as the world potentially embarks on a second nuclear age? A paradigm shift has steadily transformed the IAEA safeguards mission since Iraq’s deception. The Additional Protocol and related efforts have broadened the safeguards mission from accounting for declared materials and facilities to uncovering clandestine materials and facilities, which has attempted to transform IAEA safeguards analysts from accountants into ace private eyes.

As citizens of states, these detectives will never be entirely independent. And as a creation of states, the safeguards system will never be independent, with those states attempting to protect their sovereignty first and foremost. Therefore, the overarching challenge is how “to balance the traditional demands of sovereignty and the legitimate demands of the international community to be assured that all states are protecting nuclear material adequately,” as Lawrence Scheinman at the Monterey Institute of International Studies underscored in a 2001 IAEA Bulletin article. He called for a “conceptual shift” that transcends sovereignty, which proved prescient in light of the unveiling of the A. Q. Khan nuclear black market that crisscrossed many state boundaries.

When faced with such transgressions, the IAEA can and should do more to exercise its authority. For instance, the IAEA Board of Governors has rarely used its authority to request a special inspection, which would seek additional information about suspicious nuclear activities that routine inspections were not able to resolve–irrespective of whether a country has agreed to the Additional Protocol or not. The board should also make use of the authority in the Additional Protocol to conduct wide-scale environmental surveillance to uncover clandestine enrichment or reprocessing activities. Since applying this authority would require more funding, staff, and laboratory capabilities to analyze the environmental nuclear samples, the board should act promptly to raise additional resources, which could be assessed and collected through a nuclear energy user fee.

In the spirit of transcending sovereignty, the IAEA Board of Governors, U.N. Security Council, and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which includes 45 countries that work together to regulate nuclear technology exports, should redouble their efforts to make the Additional Protocol universal. So far, less than half the world’s countries have adhered to it–although a majority of the countries with significant nuclear activities have joined. And without an incentive to join, many states will opt out. To provide leverage, in 2004, President George W. Bush recommended that the NSG make the Additional Protocol a mandatory condition for sale of nuclear technology. (Unfortunately, many NSG members have opposed this proposal because it could impede their ability to conduct nuclear commerce.) Further still, Pierre Goldschmidt, the IAEA’s former deputy director general and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has recommended that states found in noncompliance with their safeguards agreements be required to implement stronger monitoring measures and safeguards inspections than required by the Additional Protocol. In September, the IAEA published a plan proposing how to convince all states to conclude Safeguards Agreements and join the Additional Protocol. To achieve this goal, the plan discusses how to apply peer pressure. For example, Japan, the first country with a major nuclear program to bring the Additional Protocol into force, has worked closely with the IAEA in hosting regional workshops to educate countries about strengthened safeguards. Moreover, the plan calls for the IAEA’s technical cooperation program to teach countries about the Additional Protocol while providing technical assistance.

Sadly, though, it must be noted that no technical safeguards system is foolproof. States could always decide to use their peaceful nuclear programs for military purposes. That said, if multinational corporations or multiple states owned and controlled all of the world’s enrichment and reprocessing plants, it would raise the barrier to proliferation and create a new norm that would discourage a single state from developing its own indigenous program. Such a multinational approach would come full circle to the start of the military nuclear age when the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal Report and Baruch Plan called for multilateral control of the atom. It may take a nuclear-armed Iran or a further breach of the current safeguards system to lead the world down this path.

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