Needed: a bigger toolbox for the IAEA

By Sunday Jonah, May 3, 2012

The basic aims of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are fairly straightforward: to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons; to provide assurances, through international safeguards, that peaceful nuclear activities will not lead to the production of nuclear weapons; to promote, to the maximum extent consistent with the treaty's other provisions, the peaceful uses of nuclear energy; and eventually to make progress toward nuclear disarmament.

But enforcement of the treaty's provisions has long been a major challenge — in part because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is empowered to enforce the Safeguards Agreements that it establishes with individual nations, is not empowered to enforce the treaty as a whole. That is, the agency has no executive force. In any case, its role as an international promoter of "Atoms for Peace" is as important as its safeguards function.

Limits on the IAEA's authority, particularly in the field of nuclear security, amount to a set of serious deficiencies in the nonproliferation regime. For example, the agency cannot require states to establish systems for nuclear security. It has no authority to verify that nuclear materials within states are accorded appropriate physical protection. Even guidance on these issues is provided by the agency only on request, and though the IAEA regularly publishes recommendations on these topics, following the recommendations is not mandatory. No nuclear security mandate requires that states adequately protect their nuclear materials.

In fact, the agency lacks the authority to take action or even comment on the measures that states enact regarding physical protection of nuclear materials unless states request that the agency carry out a specific mission to do so. And even if safeguards inspectors were to note inadequacies in nuclear security, they would not have legal authority to report them.

Compliance could be more reliably ensured if the agency's mission were redefined, thus placing it at the center of international efforts toward establishing nuclear security. Under such a scenario, the agency would develop comprehensive nuclear security standards, perform mandatory threat assessments in signatory countries, and carry out follow-up missions that would likewise be mandatory. As part of this process, an international agreement on nuclear security standards would need to be established, as would agreement on the means by which compliance could be ensured.

In the meantime, some progress is being achieved through a series of summits. In 2010, US President Barack Obama convened 47 world leaders in Washington, DC, for the first Nuclear Security Summit, which highlighted the enduring need for vigilance among committed governments. Still, the nature of the proliferation threat has evolved dramatically in recent years. The threat of non-state actors' obtaining nuclear weapons has seemed more pressing since 9/11, and existing and new nuclear power plants seem more vulnerable than ever. Increasingly, countries — most notably those represented by the Non-Aligned Movement — have expressed resentment of the restricted access to nuclear technology set by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which establishes the rules for international nuclear commerce; with more conditions placed on nuclear commerce comes the possibility of the proliferation of nuclear weapons expertise.

Thus, a second summit was held in March in South Korea, which was attended by over 50 world leaders. That summit, conducted in the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, concluded with a communiqué that addressed the security of radioactive materials, which can be used to fashion radiological dispersal devices, as well as the interface between nuclear safety and security.

The high profile of the summits has put nuclear security, and by extension the NPT regime, closer to the top of the world agenda. Perhaps progress can now be made toward enacting much-needed provisions for better enforcement of the treaty, especially considering that a third summit is scheduled for 2014 in the Netherlands. A step in the right direction would be the entry into force of the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials; this 2005 amendment was drafted to criminalize nuclear theft and smuggling, and it includes important provisions regarding storage, transport, and protection of nuclear materials, as well as protection of facilities.

In addition, special efforts toward nonproliferation ought to be targeted toward the developing world. A number of developing countries, including some in Africa, have proven to be hotbeds for terrorist recruitment, and the inability of African governments to police their borders effectively has raised concerns over illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. To address these problems, the international community should assist African governments in implementing developmental programs that might redress the endless cycle of poverty and hopelessness that characterizes much of the continent. By marrying solutions to these endemic challenges with new streams of nonproliferation assistance, the world could help curtail the risk of trafficking in nuclear materials — thus curbing proliferation through development.

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