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March 7, 2018
Efforts to Strengthen IAEA Safeguards Advance

Paul Kerr

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the agency’s Board of Governors June 12 that a committee formed last year “has begun considering” ways of improving IAEA safeguards. ElBaradei also described the agency’s progress in implementing revised safeguards affecting countries with particularly small quantities of fissionable material.

The IAEA board established the Advisory Committee on Safeguards and Verification in June 2005 after U.S. prodding. President George W. Bush had called for the committee’s formation to “strengthen the capability of the IAEA to ensure that nations comply with their international obligations.” Bush’s 2004 speech followed public revelations during the previous two years that countries such as North Korea, Iran, and Libya had pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The committee, which was granted a two-year term, is expected to provide advice to the board on whether current safeguards are sufficient for dealing with potential proliferation challenges such as clandestine nuclear programs and the threat of nuclear terrorism. (See ACT, July/August 2005.) States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) are required to conclude comprehensive safeguards agreements that allow the agency to monitor certain declared nuclear activities and facilities to ensure that they are used solely for peaceful purposes.

The safeguards committee appears to have gotten off to a slow start. U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Ambassador Gregory Schulte told Arms Control Today June 7 that the committee has “gone through an organizational phase,” adding that he hoped the committee will have “really started to get down to work” by the time it meets again in September.

Jill Cooley, a senior IAEA safeguards official told Arms Control Today June 7 that, as a first step, the agency secretariat circulated two papers to the committee in early May to initiate a discussion of measures the IAEA could take to strengthen the safeguards system. The committee is slated to discuss the recommendations in September.

The first paper contained 11 recommendations for improvements to the safeguards system, such as augmenting the capabilities of the agency’s laboratory network and expanding the list of materials and equipment that NPT states are required to declare under additional protocols. Such voluntary agreements expand the number of nuclear-related activities and facilities that an NPT member-state must declare, as well as augment the agency’s authority to detect undeclared nuclear activities. So far, 75 out of 189 NPT states-parties have additional protocols in force; 107 have signed them.

The secretariat’s second paper discussed means of increasing the IAEA’s use of satellite imagery. ElBaradei told the board in June that such information would improve the agency’s verification capabilities.

Asked about U.S. support for such efforts, Schulte said that Washington has “looked at ways” of providing the IAEA with access to higher-quality open-source satellite imagery.

Schulte indicated that the committee will likely form working groups of experts to evaluate relevant technical issues. Whether the committee intends to do this in September is unclear.

Progress on Small Quantities Protocol

The agency also has begun to obtain agreement from some countries to modify their small quantities protocols because of concern that these might constitute a weakness in the IAEA’s ability to detect clandestine nuclear activity. Although all NPT states-parties are required to conclude an IAEA safeguards agreement, some countries with small quantities of fissionable materials, such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium, are able to conclude a small quantities protocol to their safeguards agreements. Certain IAEA verification requirements are suspended for such states.

Last year, the board called for changes to the agreements. In September, the board approved a modified model text and urged states with such protocols to adopt it. (See ACT, October 2005.) The revised text established more rigorous criteria for states wishing to conclude small quantities protocols. It also contained additional requirements for all current and future states with such protocols.

Seven states have accepted the modified protocol text, ElBaradei said. They are among 77 states that currently have small quantities protocols in force. Twelve others have signed such protocols.