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– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
IAEA Board Closes Safeguards Loophole

Paul Kerr

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors Sept. 20 approved changes to strengthen the agency’s Small Quantities Protocol, an agreement the IAEA viewed as a weak point in its overall ability to detect clandestine nuclear activity.

State-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) 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 solely for peaceful purposes. However, some NPT state-parties with small quantities of fissionable materials, such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, have also been able to conclude a small quantities protocol to their safeguards agreements. Certain IAEA verification requirements are suspended for such states.

After reviewing a report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei during its June meeting, the board agreed that the protocol constituted “a weakness of the safeguards system.” The board considered two solutions described in the report and opted to adopt modifications to the protocol’s standard text. (See ACT, July/August 2005.)

NPT members may still conclude small quantities protocols, but the revised text establishes more rigorous criteria for states wishing to conclude such agreements. Additionally, the text places further obligations on all present and future states with such protocols.

Previously, a non-nuclear-weapon NPT state could conclude a small quantities protocol as long as the state did 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 could not 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 1 effective kilogram is customarily used.” These states were also not obligated to disclose their nuclear material inventory to the IAEA.

The modified text, however, requires states to provide the agency with “initial reports” of all relevant nuclear material and to allow the agency to verify those reports via inspections. It also effectively allows the IAEA to monitor nuclear facilities in all NPT states regardless of whether the facilities contain nuclear material. States with either planned or existing nuclear facilities that have not yet concluded a protocol will henceforth not be permitted to do so. Similarly, states with a small quantities protocol that have planned or existing facilities will be called on to rescind their agreements. However, “only a few countries” are in this situation, an IAEA official told Arms Control Today Oct. 25. Seventy-six states currently have small quantities protocols in force.

The IAEA previously could not require states with a protocol either to provide early design information about planned nuclear facilities or allow the agency to determine the status of such facilities. In fact, such states were only required to give the agency six months’ notice before introducing nuclear material into a facility.

According to the IAEA official, the final standard text suspends two more requirements for countries with small quantities protocols than ElBaradei’s report had initially suggested. This was done to avoid creating the impression that the IAEA was adding unintended obligations to states with small quantities protocols, the official said, adding that keeping the requirements “would not have added anything substantial.”

ElBaradei’s report argued that eliminating the Small Quantities Protocol altogether was a superior alternative. According to that proposal, no more states would be able to conclude such protocols, and the states with existing protocols would be called on to rescind them. These states would then have been required to provide regular accounting reports of their nuclear activities to the IAEA and allow the agency to conduct routine inspections.

Although the revised text does not include these requirements, it nevertheless eliminates the current protocol’s “key limitations,” an IAEA official told Arms Control Today in June.

According to the IAEA, the agency will be contacting states that have concluded the protocol to discuss the necessary changes. The IAEA General Conference adopted a resolution Sept. 30 encouraging states with such protocols to comply with the new modifications “as soon as possible.”