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March 7, 2018
GAO Calls for IAEA Improvements

Erin Creegan

A Nov. 7 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report calls for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to institute better measures to judge the effectiveness of its safeguards and nuclear security activities.

The report by Congress’ nonpartisan watchdog agency also calls for greater IAEA efforts to induce more countries to adopt the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, which strengthens safeguards over nuclear activities. Safeguards are inspections, accounting, and analysis the agency uses to detect and deter diversion of nuclear material and technology into weapons programs.

On the management level, the report urges the IAEA to conduct longer-term budget planning and revamp its personnel practices.

The United Nations established the IAEA in 1957 as an autonomous organization with the aim of promoting international cooperation in the peaceful and safe use of nuclear technology. The entry into force of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970 cemented the organization’s role in establishing and administering international safeguards.

Beginning with the discovery of a clandestine nuclear weapons program in Iraq in 1991, the mission and scope of IAEA operations have expanded. After being surprised by the scale of Iraq’s nuclear program, the IAEA and its Board of Governors sought greater means for determining whether non-nuclear-weapon states were operating covert nuclear programs. Multilateral negotiations eventually produced the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, which requires a greater range of information to be reported by states. Most importantly, such protocols grant the IAEA a much clearer mandate and authority to investigate and determine whether a state is engaged in any undeclared activities.

The IAEA’s role grew further after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Subsequently, the IAEA has moved to help countries improve the physical protection of their nuclear and radioactive materials to avoid an accidental leak to terrorist or other illicit organizations. (See ACT, September 2005.)

The report acknowledges IAEA efforts to cope with its increased workload. The organization has begun executing short-notice inspections, taking extensive environmental sampling to verify nuclear activity, modernizing outdated information managements systems, and developing less comprehensive “integrated safeguards” for particularly compliant countries. The GAO notes that, by utilizing new resources such as satellite information and more comprehensive state reports, the IAEA has begun to “develop the capability to independently evaluate all aspects of a country’s nuclear activities.”

Although the report recognizes the success of the IAEA in uncovering covert nuclear activities in Egypt, Iran, and South Korea, it also expresses concern for the conclusion of a group of safeguard experts that “a determined country can still conceal a nuclear weapons program.”

The report points out three ways that the problem might be addressed. First, it suggests reducing the use of 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. In September, the agency approved more rigorous criteria for states wishing to conclude such agreements and placed further obligations on all present and future states with such protocols. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Secondly, the report notes that 37 countries have yet to bring into force a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA. The NPT requires states to conclude such agreements within 18 months of becoming a party to the treaty, but 28 have failed to do so more than 10 years after becoming NPT parties, including Kenya, Niger, and Turkmenistan.

Finally, additional protocols are still not in force in most states. As one step, the report urges the United States, which has ratified a protocol but not passed implementing legislation, to do so.

The report recommends that the Department of State work with members of the IAEA Board of Governors and its staff to develop “clear and meaningful measures to better evaluate the effectiveness of IAEA’s strengthened safeguards program and nuclear security activities.” It supports the recommendations of Los Alamos National Laboratory officials, who urged the IAEA “to assess the extent to which its strengthened safeguard activities, such as environmental sampling and complementary access, are sufficient to detect clandestine activities and establish specific performance measures to evaluate these efforts.” Similarly, in the nuclear security realms, the report urges the IAEA to provide better information on the extent to which its efforts have improved security of particular nuclear materials or facilities.

Both safeguards and nuclear security efforts face budgetary challenges as well. The report notes that the agency depends on voluntary contributions for 89 percent of its nuclear security funds—voluntary contributions totaled $36.7 million from 2002 to 2005—limiting its flexibility and planning ability. It recommends that the IAEA develop a systematic process to provide long-term budget forecasts for safeguards as a way of encouraging better and more widespread funding of the agency, particularly from countries other than the United States.

The GAO also addresses the IAEA’s human capital crisis. Because its personnel policy forces retirement at 62, more than half of the agency’s senior safeguard inspectors will be lost over the next five years. Such losses will occur at a time that there is a shrinking pool of people seeking jobs in the nuclear field and fierce competition for such applicants with the private sector. The personnel crunch could be particularly severe when it comes to qualified experts in the crucial field of uranium enrichment: a number of such experts are soon set to retire. This specialty is crucial to identifying clandestine nuclear activity, such as the black market network operated by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. A less than optimal training process compounds this problem, the GAO says.

The State Department generally endorsed the report’s recommendations. But in a written response, the department noted that countries with Small Quantities Protocols or that lack comprehensive safeguards agreements have very limited nuclear activities and are therefore unlikely to compromise the effectiveness of the safeguards system.