Strengthening Nuclear Safeguards: Special Committee to the Rescue?

Jack Boureston and Charles D. Ferguson

In June, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors created a special committee to further strengthen its safeguards system—the inspections, accounting, and analyses the agency uses to detect and deter diversion of nuclear material and technology for weapons programs. The decision was made under pressure from the United States following a February 2004 speech by President George W. Bush in which he proposed creating the committee as part of a seven-point plan to combat nuclear proliferation.

Still, the United States had to compromise to win backing for the decision, which many states feared would hamper peaceful nuclear activities. China, for example, said that the committee should serve only as an adviser to the IAEA board and should not interfere with the board’s authority or role.[1] The new committee will be fully advisory in nature and wholly subordinate to the board. Also, the committee will not intervene in the day-to-day operations of the secretariat, although it could probably draw on the expertise of the IAEA’s safeguards department or other agency offices.

Still, the compromise left a big hole. The committee appears to lack a clear mandate, and there is a struggle to determine what the agenda should be. Some members want the committee to focus on existing safeguards problems and examine legal instruments that are not being fully used, while others, such as the United States, want it to tackle a more ambitious agenda. It is also not clear how the committee will differentiate itself from the IAEA’s long-standing Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation (SAGSI), established in 1975 to advise the director-general on technical aspects of agency safeguards.

The Evolution of IAEA Safeguards

Wrestling over safeguards is almost as old as the nuclear age. In October 1945, President Harry S. Truman first proposed “international arrangements looking, if possible, to the renunciation of the use and development of the atomic bomb.” The next year, the United States unveiled a detailed plan for international control of nuclear energy through the United Nations. Although this proposal was blocked at that time, it laid the foundation for the eventual development of international safeguards.

The first steps toward today’s safeguards took place after the IAEA was born in 1957. Two years later, the first IAEA ad hoc safeguards were applied to the natural uranium fuel that Canada was supplying to Japan for a small research reactor. In 1961 the first formal IAEA safeguards agreement was developed as document INFCIRC/26. Until 1964, INFCIRC/26 agreements were only applied to reactors of less than 100 megawatts because these were the predominant technologies being exported to countries starting nuclear programs.

To take account of the evolution of nuclear development, the IAEA board in 1965 approved safeguards agreement INFCIRC/66, which applied to reactors of all power ratings. INFCIRC/66/Rev.1 included reprocessing facilities in its provisions, and follow-on revision INFCIRC/66/Rev.2 included fuel fabrication plants. Enrichment plants, however, were not included under the INFCIRC/66 safeguards agreements because none of these facilities were operating in a non-nuclear-weapon state at that time.

Today, only Israel, India, and Pakistan have safeguards applied under the facility-specific INFCIRC/66 agreements. These countries are not parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and are known to have nuclear weapons programs. Approval of the NPT in 1970 spurred further updating of safeguards to help uphold the treaty’s underlying purpose: preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons to new countries. In particular, the IAEA in 1971 enacted the so-called comprehensive safeguards agreement under INFCIRC/153.

Comprehensive safeguards, as they are known today, can be described as a set of internationally approved technical and legal measures to verify the political undertakings of states not to use nuclear material to manufacture nuclear weapons and to deter any such use. The basic procedural elements for these safeguards are the facility design review and verification, maintenance of facility operating records, reports on facility operations, and on-site inspections. Information analysis and nuclear material accountancy are also integral to comprehensive safeguards.[2]

In the mid-1970s, faced with growing global interest in nuclear energy and with the political fallout from India’s 1974 “peaceful” nuclear explosive test, the IAEA sought to strengthen and streamline the safeguards system. The following year, Director-General Sigvard Eklund established the 20-member SAGSI to evaluate the agency’s safeguards operations. Since then, SAGSI has examined a variety of topics, including integrated safeguards and new technical measures and equipment. The director-general and the Department of Safeguards continue to use this group of experts from member states for advice on technical and procedural matters involving the implementation of nuclear safeguards.

An urgent push to strengthen safeguards came during the early 1990s following the discovery of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, discrepancies in the North Korea’s initial safeguards declarations, and South Africa’s confession that it had clandestinely built nuclear weapons.

SAGSI, in particular, recommended that the agency re-energize its efforts to strengthen safeguards. In response, in June 1996, the IAEA board established Committee 24 to draft a model protocol that was approved in May 1997 as the Model Additional Protocol (INFCIRC/540). An additional protocol requires a state to provide greater information about and inspector access to all aspects of its nuclear activities, from mining uranium to disposing of nuclear waste. It also gives inspectors short-notice access to suspect nuclear related facilities.

But the Model Additional Protocol’s main innovation goes beyond declared nuclear activities. Such protocols grant the IAEA greater authority to investigate and determine whether a state is engaged in any undeclared activities. As of November 25, 106 member states have signed additional protocols to their safeguards agreements, and 69 of those have entered into force.

Because more intrusive inspections require more money and staff, there is a drive to make the strengthened safeguards system more cost effective. When a member state concludes an additional protocol, the result is “additive” measures on top of those under the comprehensive safeguards agreements[3] However, the Model Additional Protocol drafters were not simply seeking to stack varying types of safeguards measures on top of each other. Recognizing that this will result in a certain amount of redundancy, the IAEA developed the concept of “integrated safeguards.” According to one IAEA official, “Integrated safeguards is the search for the optimum combination of traditional safeguards measures with the measures of the [Model] Additional Protocol to ensure a system that is cost efficient while achieving a high degree of effectiveness.”[4]

A state is not eligible for integrated safeguards until it has brought an additional protocol agreement into force, the IAEA has resolved any questions it has about the state’s nuclear program, the IAEA concludes that there has been no diversion of nuclear material from declared facilities, and there is no indication of undeclared nuclear activities or material. As of July, the IAEA has applied integrated safeguards to Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Peru, and Uzbekistan. For each of these countries, the agency has reduced the number of routine scheduled inspections at certain types of facilities, such as light-water reactors and low-enriched uranium conversion plants.

Committee Agenda: Missing In Action

The 2004 unveiling of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s clandestine nuclear network, which supplied Iran, Libya, and North Korea with nuclear technologies, shocked the international community and inspired further calls for changes in the safeguards system. Bush, in a February 2004 speech to the National Defense University, called on the international community to consider seven potential improvements to nuclear controls.

One recommendation was the creation of a special IAEA committee to focus on safeguards and verification. It took the United States more than a year, however, to lay the groundwork for the June decision to create the committee. Part of the delay stemmed from the concerns of other countries. China was emphatic that, in creating the committee, the IAEA needed to maintain its traditional balance between preventing proliferation and promoting peaceful nuclear activities.

Not much has happened since the decision was made. According to a senior diplomat, the panel’s first meeting on Nov. 11 did not produce significant developments. The various parties staked out familiar ground. For instance, the secretariat proposed committee action based on shoring up its existing operational technical needs rather than pushing for new authorities. Western countries called for the committee to work on universal adherence to the Model Additional Protocol. Developing countries pushed predictably for keeping the committee open-ended, working by consensus, and preserving the right to peaceful uses of nuclear technologies.

Consultations are taking place to prepare a work program, while the next meeting is scheduled for January. The lack of progress is particularly noteworthy, however, because the committee is only slated to last for two years, although its term could be extended.

Progress could be further hampered because of the composition of the special committee. It was to be chaired by the chairman of the IAEA board, currently Japanese Ambassador Yukiya Amano. At the first meeting of the committee, however, he declined to be named as the committee’s chair. After consultations, consensus was reached to designate Ambassador Taous Feroukhi of Algeria as the chair for the next year. The committee’s participation is open to any member state on the board. That could prove politically troublesome to the United States because three of its antagonists— Belarus, Cuba, and Syria—have recently joined the board, and Iran has also expressed interest in joining the committee. In his 2004 speech, Bush demanded that states, such as Iran, under IAEA investigation for violating nonproliferation obligations not be allowed to be members of the board or the special committee. Nevertheless, in February the United States reversed this position after some member states insisted on keeping membership in the committee open.[5]

Still, the biggest problem the committee faces is the lack of a clear agenda. The IAEA has recently asked outside consultants to help develop a slate of issues for the committee to consider. In addition, Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has provided some guidance by pointing out that the committee can act as “a reality check” and can conduct a “revisit of the whole safeguards system to see whether it is still effective to meet emerging challenges.”[6] Some challenges he has pointed to include illicit trafficking of nuclear material and facilities, the threat of nuclear terrorism, and the discovery of clandestine nuclear programs in certain countries.

A high-level official in Vienna fleshed out other possibilities that the committee could consider, such as strengthening measures to enforce compliance of safeguards; assessing existing legal authorities to prevent or halt illicit activities; investigating new or emerging threats from nonstate actors, such as future Khan networks; contemplating the expansion of the agency’s legal authorities to inspect and verify facilities; and examining recommendations from the past, including those made during seminars, SAGSI meetings, and possibly those made in Committee 24 meetings. The committee could also consider more limited steps, such as reviewing annual safeguards implementation reports and assessing IAEA safeguards-related and analytical training programs.

A senior U.S. official said that Washington hopes to see the committee focus on ways to meet new threats and challenges such as nuclear terrorism and clandestine supplier networks, explore ways to bring about universal adherence to the Model Additional Protocol, and find new ways to urge member states to submit their safeguards declarations in a timely manner. Although most member states submitted their declarations on time or just a few days late, some are more than 180 days late, and four states are more than one year late.

The official said the United States was also interested in seeing more member states voluntarily report their nuclear-related export activities. He said he hoped the committee would urge states to be less hesitant about giving information to the agency. Another area the official thought the committee might investigate is implementing recent modifications that the IAEA approved in September in relation to the Small Quantities Protocol. For some years, the IAEA has permitted some NPT state-parties with small quantities of fissionable materials, such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium, to conclude such a protocol suspending certain agency verification requirements. The recent changes introduced more rigorous criteria for states wishing to conclude such agreements and placed further obligations on all present and future states with such protocols.[7]

In addition, the U.S. official suggested the committee look at ways to help states work within the framework of the IAEA to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1540. In April 2004, the Security Council unanimously passed this resolution, which is legally binding on all states because it was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The resolution calls on states to implement appropriate effective controls to prevent weapons of mass destruction-related materials from contributing to proliferation or terrorism. States are required to file reports to the 1540 Committee specifying what controls they have enacted. However, a major shortcoming of the resolution is that it does not adequately define what is meant by effective controls. To help bridge this gap, the IAEA special committee may consider defining these controls by specifying appropriate standards and best practices in safeguarding nuclear equipment and materials.

What Should the Committee Do?

All of these are worthy proposals. It seems evident, above all, that the committee needs to take a step back and fully assess the concept of safeguards, ensuring that halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the system’s top priority. It also needs to differentiate itself clearly from SAGSI. One way to do so would be to focus on legal and political issues, while leaving the more technical issues to SAGSI, the body that has traditionally tackled the implementation of safeguards agreements.

The new committee should consider improving IAEA practices in four particular areas: greater access, greater authority, greater capabilities, and greater incentives and disincentives to prevent proliferation.

Greater Access

The agency needs greater access to facilities and information. During the drafting of the Model Additional Protocol, it was agreed that broader access must be provided, but that did not equate to unlimited access. Political and commercial considerations have at times limited access to IAEA inspectors, and this needs to be resolved to the satisfaction of those trying to develop an even more strengthened proliferation and deception-resistant verification system.

The Khan network highlighted the need for a better understanding of nuclear-related transfers of materials between nations. To that end, the IAEA has established a special unit to “investigate, document, and analyze worldwide nuclear trade activities.” The new committee should review safeguards provisions and determine if states can be more transparent about their nuclear related activities such as providing more information regarding their nuclear related exports and imports.

Greater Authority

Hand in hand with greater access requirements, the agency needs greater authority to question national authorities, interview facility operators, and investigate records, reports, and facilities. This equates to the provision of greater legal authority to be more intrusive. In particular, the agency has the authority to request a “special inspection.” However, the IAEA has only twice formally invoked the special inspection provision of INFCIRC/153. In the first instance, Romania in 1992 invited the IAEA to conduct a special inspection to resolve an outstanding issue that had taken place under the Ceausescu regime. In contrast, in the second instance, North Korea in 1993 did not consent to the requested special inspection. Although the board has been reluctant to invoke this special inspection power, these inspections do not have to be confrontational, as demonstrated by Romania, and can help provide needed additional information to gain greater understanding about a state’s adherence to its safeguards requirements.[8] The special committee should help guide the board in determining when special inspections would be appropriate.

Greater Capabilities

The agency needs better capabilities to analyze the nuclear fuel cycle processes, facilities, and research activities of member states. To this end, new safeguards monitoring systems are under development and consideration. In particular, the agency has been developing unattended monitoring systems that can provide continuous coverage of a safeguarded facility while reducing the need for a costly human presence. For example, the Japanese Rokkasho reprocessing plant will make extensive use of this type of technology. The committee should consider whether it is feasible to apply advanced continuous monitoring techniques to Iran’s sensitive nuclear facilities, such as the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan and the uranium-enrichment facilities, which are currently suspended, at Natanz.

To cut costs and increase monitoring capabilities further, the agency is trying to make use of encoded long-distance transmission of verification data. It is also important to make wider use of environmental sampling techniques to detect possible undeclared nuclear activities. Such techniques allow inspectors to analyze the isotopic composition of uranium and plutonium at enrichment and reprocessing facilities.[9]

One of the biggest concerns is that a state may divert relatively small amounts of plutonium or enriched uranium from facilities that handle bulk quantities of fissile material.[10] Over time, a proliferator could amass enough material for several bombs. To try to diminish this problem, the special committee should investigate whether it is possible to make improvements in fissile material accountancy and measurements to reduce the amount of “material unaccounted for,” but this effort will require close cooperation with facility operators.

Additionally, the agency needs to have a greater ability to differentiate between member states in good standing and those that may attempt to take advantage of or circumvent the system.[11] Officials from Australia’s Safeguards Office recently discussed a new approach to safeguards called “information driven” safeguards approaches, the process of developing safeguards after due consideration of the state’s specific factors. In this new approach, aspects such as the technical capabilities of a member state, potential political motivation to develop nuclear weapons, and any specific indicators that a member state is interested in developing nuclear weapons are all taken into account. The committee should consider adopting this approach.[12]

Greater Incentives and Disincentives

Greater incentives and disincentives can encourage member states to follow the rules. Incentives may come in the form of greater technical assistance in building reactors and a guarantee of fuel and spent fuel disposal if states forgo the development of facilities that could be of proliferation concern. Disincentives might include a possible role for the special committee as a monitoring and advisory group to the board on activities of proliferation concern by member states. In this capacity, committee members from rollback states, such as South Africa and Sweden, could provide an interesting perspective to the detection of questionable activities. In this role, the committee would also assist the board in deciding whether a state is in violation of its safeguards agreement and should be referred to the Security Council.

In addition, the committee could usefully be given three other tasks. One would be to think creatively about how to involve Israel, India, and Pakistan effectively in the safeguards system. In July, the United States and India agreed to expand peaceful nuclear cooperation. Because U.S. peaceful nuclear assistance is usually contingent on the recipient country having comprehensive safeguards, the United States is confronting how to provide such assistance to India. India has pledged to separate its military and civilian nuclear facilities, but still the mere existence of an Indian military nuclear program prevents the implementation of truly comprehensive safeguards. If this deal continues to move forward, the agency could help sort out what safeguards might be appropriate for additional facilities in order to make sure that the nonproliferation benefits of the deal outweigh its costs. Likewise, more safeguards and verification work could be done in all of these countries, especially Pakistan, which served as the headquarters of the Khan nuclear network.

Similar to these countries, North Korea is outside the bounds of the NPT, from which Pyongyang walked away in 2003. During a September round of six-party talks on its nuclear program, Pyongyang declared its intention to return to the NPT to gain access to peaceful nuclear technologies. Before North Korea can rejoin the NPT, it must verifiably and irreversibly dismantle all its nuclear weapons programs. The special committee should contribute its expertise to help determine effective means for verifying that North Korea has done so.

Another useful task would be further study and clarification of the concept of integrated safeguards. Although integrated safeguards are touted as more efficient and cost effective because they reduce the number of inspections per year in countries that have a history of responsible nonproliferation behavior, they may also bring opportunities for countries to restart dormant nuclear programs clandestinely or develop parallel weapons programs without the agency noticing.


It is difficult to say if the safeguards committee will be effective. Based on discussions with one senior diplomat, the committee risks becoming a redundant group of insiders, not willing or able to go beyond the political boundaries so often hampering work. On the other hand, it might also usefully identify gaps in the safeguards system and find ways to fill them.

Having spent significant diplomatic energy to propose and launch the committee, the United States should invest more effort in working closely with other committee members to craft an ambitious agenda. The United States should strive to ensure that the past history of safeguards development does not become the prologue for the future.

The evolution of the safeguards system has usually followed a reactive course in which the IAEA and member states made improvements after major shocks to the system or after countries have acquired new nuclear technologies. By helping the agency gain greater access, greater authorities, and greater capabilities, the committee can help the agency forestall or foresee future threats instead of falling behind.

Jack Boureston is managing director of FirstWatch International, a private nuclear proliferation research group in Monterey, California and Charles D. Ferguson is a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


1. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Chinese Statement on Item 8: Creation of a Special Committee on Safeguards and Verification,” March 3, 2005.

2. Hooper, “The IAEA’s Additional Protocol,” Disarmament Forum, Vol. 3 (1999).

3. John Carlson et al., “Back to Basics: Re-Thinking Safeguards Principles,” Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Material Management (INMM), July 13-17, 2003.

4. Piet de Klerk, “The Evolution of IAEA Safeguards,” March 2001.

5. “Statement by the United States of America, on Agenda Item 8: Creation of a Special Committee on Safeguard and Verification,” March 3, 2005.

6. IAEA, “Transcript of the Director General’s Press Statement,” June 17, 2005.

7. Paul Kerr, “IAEA Board Closes Safeguards Loophole,” Arms Control Today, November 2005.

8. John Carlson and Russell Leslie, “Special Inspections Revisited,” Paper presented at the INMM 2005 symposium, Phoenix, July 2005.

9. Pierre Goldschmidt, “Present Status and Future of International Safeguards,” Paper presented at JNC International Forum for Peaceful Utilization of Nuclear Energy, February 2003.

10. Paul Leventhal, “Safeguards Shortcomings: A Critique,” September 12, 1994 (Nuclear Control Institute report); Henry Sokolski, “After Iran: Back to the Basics on ‘Peaceful’ Nuclear Energy,” Arms Control Today, April 2005.

11. Kaoru Naito, “Safeguards Challenges: A Japanese View,” Paper presented at INMM Annual Meeting, July 13-17, 2003.

12. John Carlson, email communications with author, September 2005.