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May 19, 2021
IAEA Board Seeks Strengthened Safeguards

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Paul Kerr

In an effort to strengthen the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to detect clandestine nuclear activity, the agency’s Board of Governors in June established a committee to recommend improvement in agency safeguards and considered the shortcomings of the IAEA’s Small Quantities Protocol.

The board discussed a report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, which detailed the constraints that the Small Quantities Protocol places on the agency’s verification abilities as well as proposed two options for strengthening safeguards in states with such protocols. During the board’s previous meeting last February, ElBaradei described the Small Quantities Protocol, which the IAEA developed in 1971, as “a remaining weakness in the safeguards system,” adding that the agency had “begun informal consultations” with governments on the matter.

Three days after the meeting’s June 13 opening, Saudi Arabia raised eyebrows by signing its own protocol. Saudi Arabia is one of several countries that the IAEA is investigating as possible customers of a clandestine nuclear procurement network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. (See ACT, March 2005.)

The board will again discuss the protocols during its next meeting in September, ElBaradei stated June 17.

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) states-parties are required to conclude an IAEA safeguards agreement, which allows the agency to monitor certain declared nuclear activities and facilities to ensure that they are used for peaceful purposes.

However, a non-nuclear-weapon NPT state may conclude a small quantities protocol to its safeguards agreement as long as the state does not possess more than 1 kilogram of “special fissionable material,” which consists of 1 kilogram of plutonium or progressively larger amounts of enriched, natural, or depleted uranium. Additionally, the state cannot have any such material in a nuclear “facility,” such as a reactor, a nuclear fuel production plant, or any other “location where nuclear material in amounts greater than one effective kilogram is customarily used.”

Both plutonium and highly enriched uranium can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

According to ElBaradei’s report, the IAEA has no credible information that any states with such protocols are engaged in nuclear weapons activities, but the agency still considers it necessary to have the “right to apply appropriate verifi- cation measures” in all NPT states-parties. The IAEA warned in a 2003 report that the agency “has only very limited means” to verify that a state with the protocol has no undeclared nuclear activities or does not possess more nuclear material than the protocol permits.

For example, the IAEA has very limited ability to conduct on-site verification in states with the Small Quantities Protocol that have not ratified versions of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol as supplements to their safeguards agreements. Instead, the agency must evaluate their safeguards compliance “primarily on the basis” of outside information.

A ratified additional protocol expands the number of nuclear-related activities and facilities that an NPT member-state must declare, as well as augments the agency’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities. Of the 75 states with the Small Quantities Protocol in force, only 20 have versions of the Model Additional Protocol in force.

Even if states with the Small Quantities Protocol conclude additional protocols, the IAEA still lacks some critical authority, ElBaradei’s report says. For example, the agency cannot require such states to produce initial reports of their nuclear material and activities; nor can it verify the accuracy of such reports.

Additionally, the IAEA cannot require these states to provide nuclear “facility design information” as soon as the decision to construct such a facility has been made or allow the agency to “determine the status of any nuclear facilities.” Absent the former requirement, such states only have to give the agency six months’ notice before introducing nuclear material into a facility.

ElBaradei’s report proposes two solutions. The first is for the IAEA to refuse to authorize any more states to sign on to the Small Quantities Protocol and to call on the current protocol states to rescind theirs.

The second is to adopt a modified protocol text that would require states concluding such a protocol to provide the agency with initial reports of their nuclear materials as well as early facility-design information and limited inspection authority. Additionally, states with planned or existing nuclear facilities would not be permitted to conclude a protocol. States in similar situations who already have such proposals would be called on to rescind them.

The first option is preferable, according to ElBaradei’s report, because it would require states to provide regular accounting reports of their nuclear activities to the IAEA and allow the agency to conduct routine inspections.

According to an IAEA official, the second option does not provide for such measures because any modified protocol is not intended to be “tantamount to rescinding” the existing one.

The timing of Saudi Arabia’s decision to sign its protocol while the board was discussing the protocol’s shortcomings concerned board members such as the United States.

Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack stated June 10 that Washington had been encouraging Riyadh to conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement, but did not comment on the country’s protocol when asked about the matter four days later.

Although some observers suspect Saudi Arabia, which acceded to the NPT in 1988, of having nuclear weapons ambitions, the IAEA has not found any evidence of clandestine Saudi nuclear activity, and public U.S. intelligence reports do not name the country as pursuing nuclear weapons. The Saudi Foreign Ministry stated June 12 that it does not “possess any nuclear facilities or reactors, nor any fissionable or related materials.”

New Committee Established

ElBaradei stated June 17 that the board also unanimously agreed to establish a U.S.-proposed committee to improve the agency’s verification and compliance abilities. According to ElBaradei, the advisory committee was granted a two-year term and has been charged with making recommendations to the board, which will later decide whether to extend the committee’s mandate.

Calling the committee a “reality check,” ElBaradei argued that the board should determine whether existing safeguards can “meet emerging challenges,” such as the threat of nuclear terrorism, the Khan network, and some NPT states’ clandestine nuclear programs.

The committee could meet by September but apparently does not yet have a defined agenda. State Department deputy spokesperson Adam Ereli told reporters June 17 that the committee will need to take further steps to define its agenda and formulate details of its operation. He also indicated that the United States will attempt to have the committee consider “enforcement provisions” but did not elaborate.

President George W. Bush proposed the committee, along with other nonproliferation measures, during a February 2004 speech. Although Bush called for the committee to exclude IAEA members under investigation for safeguards violations, the committee’s membership is “open ended,” according to ElBaradei.

Nevertheless, a June 17 White House press release states that the committee “will aid efforts to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons” as well as “strengthen the IAEA’s ability to monitor and enforce compliance” with the NPT. ElBaradei noted June 14 that the board had established a similar committee in 1996 as part of an agency effort to address IAEA safeguards’ weaknesses, which had been made evident by the agency’s failure to detect Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program. The 1997 Model Additional Protocol was one product of this agency effort. (See ACT, May 1997.)