Foreign Policy Blogs

Nuke Safeguards 101: What Can and Can’t the IAEA Do?

It is very easy to think you understand what it is the IAEA, or, as it is called in so many media stories, the “UN Nuclear Watchdog”, can actually do to detect a covert nuclear weapons program or the diversion of nuclear material. You envision IAEA safeguards inspectors busting down doors like nuclear superheroes, pointing accusingly at some nuclear rogue and shouting “ah ha! We’ve got you now, you proliferator!” Um, not so much. In fact, much of what these workhorses of the IAEA do is incredibly boring, very thankless, and oftentimes, very unsexy. Think standing atop a spent fuel pool at a nuclear power reactor in the middle of nowhere, counting fuel rods. Wow. Sign me up.

But, every now and then there’s a clue, a tantalizing nugget of information which MAY point to something rotten in the state of Denmark….or Tehran.

In order to cast some light on this misunderstood agency, particularly as it relates to nonproliferation efforts, I offer the following mini-tutorial on the IAEA’s inspection arm.

Nuke Safeguards 101: What Can and Can’t the IAEA Do?

When word of a “surprise” discovery or disclosure by Iran, North Korea, Syria or other country starts circulating about some big nuclear development, many begin to wonder: why didn’t the IAEA find this problem? If they aren’t finding these covert activities, then what good are they? [NB: North Korea is no longer an IAEA Member State, so the answer is probably not much, which is why Sig Hecker’s November 2010 trip report from Pyongyang was so important.] Well, in a nutshell, maybe they already knew – many bits of information disclosed to the “Agency”, as those in the know call it, are subject to confidentiality between they and the member state. But, more importantly, they may have simply been unable to gain access, which, in turn, can fuel additional suspicions. And sometimes, even non-answers are, in effect, answers. Or assumptions.

Case in point: the IAEA’s recently disclosed quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities. As reported by the New York Times on Friday, the report notes Iranian refusals to answer questions about what its inspectors called “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program.

The Agency’s report also:

“alluded to ‘new information recently received,’ suggesting continuing work toward a nuclear warhead. The inspectors provided no details about the new information or how it was received. The I.A.E.A. frequently gets its data from the intelligence agencies of member countries, including the United States, but it also tries to collect data from its own sources. The report on Friday referred directly to concerns that Iran was working on “the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” But it noted that all of its requests for information had been ignored for years, with Iranian officials arguing that whatever information the agency possessed, it was based on forgeries.”

I should add that, even if a country invites the inspectors in, it is possible that they won’t be given straight answers, as noted in the above-example. Unfortunately, even in this case, the Agency’s hands are tied beyond reporting Iranian stonewalling.  So, if Iran does ultimately prove to have a nuclear weapons arsenal, all the IAEA can really say is “We told you so, or at least implied that.” The rest is up to the Member States.

It’s important to remember that the IAEA is a multilateral, semi-autonomous agency of the UN system. For the most part, their access to a country or facility must be granted by that country. So, if Iran invites the IAEA in, you can pretty much assume they’ve cleaned up the place before the inspectors arrive. This is why ratification of the Additional Protocol is so important for nonproliferation efforts. The Additional Protocol, originally called the “93+2 process”, was concluded after the Agency was the subject of a rather big embarrassment, when the covert Iraqi nuclear weapons program came to light. The IAEA Secretariat asked Member States to allow it additional access to prevent a repeat of Iraq. It needed the ability to do unannounced inspections and to perform environmental sampling at a fair distance from a suspect or disputed nuclear facility. Although the former still requires Member State okay, the latter does not. This makes it a rather important tool to detect covert activities.

In the words of the IAEA:

“The Additional Protocol is a legal document granting the IAEA complementary inspection authority to that provided in underlying safeguards agreements. A principal aim is to enable the IAEA inspectorate to provide assurance about both declared and possible undeclared activities. Under the Protocol, the IAEA is granted expanded rights of access to information and sites.”

In my work with Secretariat staff, they often pointed out that Member States often forgot that the IAEA can only do what its Members, or in this case, its Board of Governors, allows it to do. This key bit of information came to light more often than not during the tenure of the very vocal and very public recent Director General, Mohammad ElBaradei. ElBaradei often chafed under the strains of this very requirement. Some would say he went way beyond what was appropriate in bucking the strictures of the Agency’s Member States.

But, back to the lesson at hand: the IAEA retains a number of tools in its safeguards arsenal to try and fulfill its safeguards and security mandate. Implementing safeguards is but one. Below, for your reading pleasure, is a summary of the IAEA’s safeguards operation, courtesy of the IAEA itself.

Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements and Additional Protocols

What are safeguards and what role do they play?

Safeguards are activities by which the IAEA can verify that a State is living up to its international commitments not to use nuclear programs for nuclear-weapons purposes. The global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and other treaties against the spread of nuclear weapons entrust the IAEA as the nuclear inspectorate. Today, the IAEA safeguards nuclear material and activities under agreements with more than 140 States.

Within the world’s nuclear non-proliferation regime, the IAEA’s safeguards system functions as a confidence-building measure, an early warning mechanism, and the trigger that sets in motion other responses by the international community if and when the need arises.

Over the past decade, IAEA safeguards have been strengthened in key areas. Measures aim to increase the likelihood of detecting a clandestine nuclear weapons program and to build confidence that States are abiding by their international commitments.

What verification measures are used?

Safeguards are based on assessments of the correctness and completeness of a State’s declared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities. Verification measures include on-site inspections, visits, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation. Basically, two sets of measures are carried out in accordance with the type of safeguards agreements in force with a State. One set relates to verifying State reports of declared nuclear material and activities. These measures authorized under NPT-type comprehensive safeguards agreements – largely are based on nuclear material accountancy, complemented by containment and surveillance techniques, such as tamper-proof seals and cameras that the IAEA installs at facilities. Another set adds measures to strengthen the IAEA’s inspection capabilities. They include those incorporated in what is known as an “Additional Protocol”, a legal document complementing comprehensive safeguards agreements. The measures enable the IAEA not only to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material but also to provide assurances as to the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a State.

What kinds of inspections are done?

The IAEA carries out different types of on-site inspections and visits under comprehensive safeguards agreements.

Ad hoc inspections typically are made to verify a State´s initial report of nuclear material or reports on changes thereto, and to verify the nuclear material involved in international transfers.

Routine inspections – the type most frequently used – may be carried out according to a defined schedule or they may be of an unannounced or short-notice character. The Agency´s right to carry out routine inspections under comprehensive safeguards agreements is limited to those locations within a nuclear facility, or other locations containing nuclear material, through which nuclear material is expected to flow (strategic points).

Special inspections may be carried out in circumstances according to defined procedures. The IAEA may carry out such inspections if it considers that information made available by the State concerned, including explanations from the State and information obtained from routine inspections, is not adequate for the Agency to fulfill its responsibilities under the safeguards agreement.

Safeguards visits may be made to declared facilities at appropriate times during the lifecycle for verifying the safeguards relevant design information. For example, such visits may be carried out during construction to determine the completeness of the declared design information; during routine facility operations and following maintenance, to confirm that no modification was made that would allow unreported activities to take place; and during a facility decommissioning, to confirm that sensitive equipment was rendered unusable.

Activities IAEA inspectors perform during and in connection with on-site inspections or visits at facilities may include auditing the facility´s accounting and operating records and comparing these records with the State´s accounting reports to the agency; verifying the nuclear material inventory and inventory changes; taking environmental samples; and applying containment and surveillance measures (e.g., seal application, installation of surveillance equipment).

What is the Additional Protocol to safeguards agreements?

The Additional Protocol is a legal document granting the IAEA complementary inspection authority to that provided in underlying safeguards agreements. A principal aim is to enable the IAEA inspectorate to provide assurance about both declared and possible undeclared activities. Under the Protocol, the IAEA is granted expanded rights of access to information and sites.

An overview of the strengthened safeguards measures under Additional Protocols and comprehensive safeguards agreements follows:

Measures under Additional Protocols

State provision of information about, and IAEA inspector access to, all parts of a State’s nuclear fuel cycle – including uranium mines, fuel fabrication and enrichment plants, and nuclear waste sites – as well as to any other location where nuclear material is or may be present;

State provision of information on, and IAEA short-notice access to, all buildings on a nuclear site;

(The Protocol provides for IAEA inspectors to have “complementary” access to assure the absence of undeclared nuclear material or to resolve questions or inconsistencies in the information a State has provided about its nuclear activities. Advance notice in most cases is at least 24 hours. The advance notice is shorter – at least two hours – for access to any place on a site that is sought in conjunction with design information verification or ad hoc or routine inspections at that site. The activities carried out during complementary access could include examination of records, visual observation, environmental sampling, utilization of radiation detection and measurement devices, and the application of seals and other identifying and tamper-indicating devices);

IAEA collection of environmental samples at locations beyond declared locations when deemed necessary by the Agency. (Wider area environmental sampling would require IAEA Board approval of such sampling and consultations with the State concerned);

IAEA right to make use of internationally established communications systems, including satellite systems and other forms of telecommunication;

State acceptance of IAEA inspector designations and issuance of multiple entry visas (valid for at least one year) for inspectors;

State provision of information about, and IAEA verification mechanisms for, its research and development activities related to its nuclear fuel cycle;

and State provision of information on the manufacture and export of sensitive nuclear-related technologies, and IAEA verification mechanisms for manufacturing and import locations in the State.

Measures under Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements

IAEA collection of environmental samples in facilities and at locations where inspectors have access during inspections and design information verification (with sample analysis at the IAEA Clean Laboratory and/or at certified laboratories in Member States);

IAEA use of unattended and remote monitoring of movements of declared nuclear material in facilities and the transmission of authenticated and encrypted safeguards-relevant data to the Agency;

IAEA expanded use of unannounced inspections within the scheduled routine inspection regime;

IAEA enhanced evaluation of information from a State’s declarations, IAEA verification activities and a wide range of open sources;

State provision of design information on new facilities and on changes in existing facilities as soon as the State authorities decide to construct, authorize construction or modify a facility. The IAEA has the continuing right to verify the design information over the facility’s lifecycle, including decommissioning;

State voluntary reporting on imports and exports of nuclear material and exports of specified equipment and non-nuclear material. (Components of this reporting are incorporated in the Model Additional Protocol);

Closer co-operation between the IAEA and the State (and regional) systems for accounting for and control of nuclear material in Member States; and Provision of enhanced training for IAEA inspectors and safeguards staff and for Member State personnel responsible for safeguards implementation.




Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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