Nuclear Technical Cooperation: A Right or a Privilege?

Jack Boureston and Jennifer Lacey

In November 2006, during its annual meeting to consider technical cooperation applications, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) 35-nation Board of Governors denied Iran’s request for technical assistance for its Arak 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor.[1] Later, in January 2007, in light of UN Security Council Resolution 1737 sanctioning Iran, the IAEA board reviewed all of the technical cooperation projects that it was administering in Iran and found that some should be suspended while others could continue based on the purpose of the project and its proliferation potential.

Although the board has denied or suspended requests in the past, this action is significant because the board in effect used the agency’s Technical Cooperation Program to penalize a state that it found to be in breach of its safeguards agreements.

The Technical Cooperation Program serves as the practical implementation of Article IV of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and of Article III of the IAEA’s founding statute. That 1957 IAEA agreement calls on the agency to promote the application of atomic energy for peaceful purposes; make provisions for materials, services, equipment, and facilities; and coordinate the exchange of scientific and technical information on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.[2] The Technical Cooperation Program, begun in the late 1960s, is the vehicle by which the IAEA implements one of its guiding principles, to “accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy.”[3]

The IAEA also plays the crucial role of ensuring that cooperation granted under NPT Article IV is not misused to help develop nuclear weapons. Article IV asserts that countries are eligible to receive nuclear assistance as long as they are “in conformity” with Articles I and II of the treaty, that is, the nuclear-weapon states agree not to provide assistance to non-nuclear-weapon states on the manufacture of nuclear weapons and explosives and the non-nuclear-weapon states agree not to receive the transfer or assistance on the development of nuclear devices. The IAEA helps in this respect by verifying that states have complied with their NPT obligations through its annual safeguards conclusions. The IAEA’s Department of Safeguards assesses the correctness and completeness of state declarations on fissile materials and technology, and prevents their diversion to weapons programs.

The IAEA Technical Cooperation Department, with more than 190 staff members, administers hundreds of technical assistance projects each year. Such assistance is provided in the form of expert advice, consultations and visiting professionals, fellowships, scientific visits, training courses, and transfers of equipment and supplies. Under these types of assistance, a broad array of projects are implemented. These include human health (e.g., nuclear medicine and radiation therapy); agricultural productivity and food security (e.g., radiation-induced mutation and irradiation); water resources management (e.g., isotope hydrology); environmental protection (e.g., nuclear techniques to conduct surveys of pollutants); physical and chemical applications (e.g., radiopharmaceuticals); and sustainable energy development (e.g., nuclear energy for electricity generation, desalination, or research).

At the same time, the department has the challenge of ensuring that these projects stay true to the agency’s nonproliferation mandate. Article III.5 of the IAEA statute maintains that the IAEA must “ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information made available by the agency or at its request or under its supervision or control are not used in such a way as to further any military purposes.”[4] The IAEA has designated “sensitive technology areas” whereby safeguards must apply to technical assistance. These areas include:

•  uranium enrichment

•  reprocessing of spent fuel

•  production of heavy water

•  handling of plutonium (including the manufacture of plutonium and mixed uranium/plutonium fuel).[5]

Various types of assistance do not fall into the above mentioned categories but present potential proliferation dangers. These assistance projects are disconcerting, given the dual-use nature of the technologies they encompass. They include applications in some nuclear instrumentation, radioisotope production, and radiochemistry. These technologies, while not sensitive, utilize the same methods and equipment as used in reprocessing, for instance, and therefore could be used later in a military program.

Applying for Technical Cooperation

The first requirement for a state that would like technical assistance is to sign a Revised Supplementary Agreement with the agency. The agreement is a promise of sorts that all activities resulting from provided assistance will be for peaceful purposes and that safeguards are applied to all facilities involved. Currently, 109 states have signed such agreements with the agency.[6]

In considering requests, the Technical Cooperation Department collaborates with the agency’s Safeguards, Nuclear Science and Applications, Nuclear Energy, and Nuclear Safety Departments.[7] Together they examine the potential for the misuse of the nuclear assistance from the time of the project request to the last stage of implementation.[8] In particular, the Safeguards and Technical Cooperation Departments collaborate to ensure that no technologies relating to nuclear proliferation are provided.

After the agency secretariat reviews the submitted project concepts, requests are passed on for evaluation by the board’s Technical Assistance and Cooperation Committee. This committee prepares a report on proposed technical cooperation projects and then recommends the report for board approval.

The Iran Case

The board’s decision to cancel and suspend some technical cooperation projects in Iran clearly shows the importance of nontechnical factors that the board might take into account in making determinations. In this case the board’s action drew quick protests from developing countries, who said the action threatened their rights to peaceful nuclear technology. According to agency sources, during the board’s deliberations, various developing countries, including Cuba, Indonesia, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela, complained that the Technical Cooperation Program was being manipulated as a political tool. Western diplomats, by contrast, emphasized that the board could not support projects that might lead to proliferation.

In November 2006, Gregory Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, emphasized the proliferation potential of the Arak reactor and stated that the agency would monitor the remaining projects in Iran to ensure that they would not “further Iran’s efforts to develop enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water projects.”[9] In addition, the European Union declared in a statement that its members “cannot support providing technical assistance to a heavy-water research reactor project that the board has several times asked Iran to reconsider.”[10]

Arak is a 40-megawatt graphite-moderated heavy-water reactor. When fully operational, it is expected to be able to produce about nine kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, or enough for one to two weapons, per year.[11] The Arak design is similar to heavy-water reactors such as Cirrus in India, and those at Khushab in Pakistan and Dimona in Israel, all of which burn natural uranium and produce high-quality weapons-grade plutonium.[12]

The IAEA board went further two months later. In January 2007, the agency evaluated its technical cooperation projects in Iran in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1737. The resolution imposed sanctions on Iran to limit its ability to obtain items, materials, equipment, goods, and technology that could aid its proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities. It requires that countries act to block the transfer or supply to Iran of “all items, materials, equipment, goods, and technology which could contribute to Iran’s enrichment-related, reprocessing, or heavy water-related activities, or to the development of nuclear weapons delivery activities.” These restrictions also would apply to proposed nuclear activities for “food, agricultural, medical or other humanitarian purposes.” Exceptions would be permitted by a designated UN committee “in advance and on a case-by-case basis” if it could be shown that the transfer would not aid Iran’s “proliferation-sensitive activities” and Iran agreed to abide by certain conditions.[13]

The IAEA board decided that 40 percent, or 22 of the 55 national, regional, and interregional projects that the agency had with Iran, should be partially or totally withdrawn.[14]

The board said Iran could not proceed with three national projects involving nuclear power generation, the creation of a nuclear technology center, and the development of certain industrial processes that use radiation.[15] It blocked Iranian participation in four regional projects intended to bolster its strategic planning, project design, and development capabilities. It also indicated that three interregional projects aimed at furthering future technical cooperation could not proceed.

The most noteworthy of the interregional projects involved Iranian participation in a forum for information and expertise exchange among developing-country member states actively involved in nuclear power planning and operations, specifically in reactor operation, maintenance, and design. At root, this project was to enable experts to participate in the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) Technical Meetings. Although such projects may not contribute directly to proliferation activities, they could help Iran develop expertise that might support banned programs.

Technical Cooperation: A Tool of The Nonproliferation Regime

Even before the board’s actions with Iran, some board members had argued that technical cooperation should be made conditional on a state’s compliance with the NPT and safeguards obligations. In May 2005, the United States circulated a working paper urging that, in cases where states are in noncompliance, all NPT states ensure that materials supplied to recipient states no longer be used and those items be eliminated or returned to the original supplier.[16] Essentially, the state would be placed on a supplier “black list” and be sanctioned from obtaining any more assistance. This could prevent future transfers, but it is unlikely that a supplier will be able to recover material it provided to a buyer. Therefore, it is incumbent on the IAEA to tighten its procedures to make it more unlikely that projects will be approved with troubled states.

Further, some have advocated that the possibility of ending nuclear cooperation be considered as punishment for states that withdraw from the treaty. Specifically, they recommend that technical assistance be withdrawn if a state invokes the treaty’s Article X withdrawal clause. In this case, the provision of technical assistance could prove to be a motivator for states to remain in good standing with the NPT and a deterrent to those who might consider leaving the treaty regime.[17]

Such proposals have met strong resistance from developing countries. Representatives of these states have argued that decisions to suspend technical cooperation that were based on political instead of technical factors would interfere with the right to develop nuclear energy. As one nonaligned diplomat asserted, “[P]olitical interference in aid programs is not something developing nations will look at positively.”[18]

During a preparatory meeting of NPT states-parties in May, developing countries prompted states-parties to reaffirm the inalienable right to peaceful nuclear energy under Article IV.[19] They reiterated that additional restrictions should not be applied to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, especially in developing countries or for a political or subjective purpose.


The fact that the IAEA is responsible both for promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy and ensuring against its misuse inevitably creates tensions. Nonetheless, given the dangers of proliferation, the agency is justifiably cautious about promoting technical cooperation in questionable states. One way the agency may strengthen the technical cooperation process is to move beyond assessing a state’s technical capabilities and also consider controversial measures, such as evaluating a state’s intent in seeking technical assistance. Factors that can be considered to measure intent include the strategic environment of the country or the potential threat of its military and economic capabilities or ideological approach; and the country’s foreign and military policy.[20] Each of these factors should be at least informally factored in the technical-cooperation project evaluation process.

This could be done by the Standing Advisory Group on Technical Assistance and Cooperation (SAGTAC), a group established in 1995 to make recommendations to the IAEA director-general for improving technical cooperation policy and enhancing the effectiveness of such activities.[21] Apparently, the last time the program was reviewed and evaluated was in 2002. The SAGTAC could audit and revise technical cooperation guidelines to state explicitly that countries must fulfill their NPT and their safeguards obligations before they received technical assistance. SAGTAC could also recommend that technical cooperation be conditioned on a requirement that recipient states be parties to the NPT. As it currently stands, the agency’s program does not differentiate between NPT and non-NPT member states. Compliance with the treaty and adherence to verification requirements could be a precondition for receiving technical assistance. Otherwise, the incentives for being a party to and complying with the NPT are lessened significantly.

The agency could also strengthen its process to verify that requested projects are in line with a state’s national priorities and therefore a legitimate technology request. As part of an enhanced review process, it is essential that the Technical Cooperation Department improve collaboration and consultation with the Safeguards Department to yield sounder decisions on the end use of technologies. Stronger cooperation will ensure that the technical assistance that the IAEA provides will not be used for military purposes in the future.

Although Article IV of the NPT provides for nuclear assistance and the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, those rights can be and have been taken away when a member state is found to be in noncompliance with its safeguards and NPT obligations. This was the case in early 2007 with the IAEA’s actions regarding technical cooperation with Tehran. Although Iranian officials have stated that the withdrawal of technical assistance will not halt their activities, the actions of the agency’s board stirred a needed debate on the right to nuclear energy.

Just as technical assistance serves as a reward to those states that conform to NPT and IAEA provisions, a withdrawal of technical assistance could serve as a form of punishment and deterrence to those who do not comply with NPT guidelines, despite the misgiving of developing states. If the IAEA as a largely technical organization prefers to avoid becoming involved in such fights, the Security Council could choose to do so, employing the IAEA as an effective instrument for enforcing Security Council sanctions and as a useful deterrent against the diversion of technologies for proliferation purposes.


Jack Boureston is managing director of FirstWatch International (FWI), a research group that conducts studies on the nuclear developments of countries. He has worked as a safeguards information analyst at the International Atomic Energy Agency and as a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. Jennifer Lacey is a research associate at FWI.


1. “IAEA Compromise Sees Iranian Reactor Request ‘Shelved,’ Not ‘Rejected,’” Agence France-Presse, November 23, 2006.

2. “The Basis for IAEA Activities in Technical Co-operation,” found at

3. IAEA, “The Revised Guiding Principles and General Operating Rules to Govern the Provision of Technical Assistance by the Agency,” INFCIRC/267, March 1979 (hereinafter IAEA Revised Guiding Principles).

4. “IAEA Technical Co-operation Activities in the 1990s,” found at

5. IAEA Revised Guiding Principles.

6. IAEA, “Revised Supplementary Agreement Concerning the Provision of Technical Assistance by the IAEA (RSA),” March 21, 2007.

7. N. Halde, “IAEA Technical Cooperation From ‘Nuclear Watchdog’ to ‘Partner in Development,’” July 25, 2007.

8. Paulo Barretto and Ana María Cetto, “IAEA Technical Cooperation and the NPT,” IAEA Bulletin, Vol. 46, No. 2 (March 2005).

9. “Diplomats Say IAEA to Reject Iranian Request for Aid With Arak Reactor,” Agence France-Presse, November 22, 2006.

10. “U.S. Urges Iran to Deny Iran Reactor Aid,” NewsMax, November 20, 2006.

11. David Albright and Paul Brannan, “ISIS Imagery Brief: Further Construction at Arak 40 MW Heavy Water Reactor,” ISIS, March 20, 2007.

12. Robert J. Einhorn and Daryl G. Kimball, “Iran’s Heavy-Water Reactor: A Plutonium Bomb Factory,” Arms Control Association, November 9, 2006 (press release).

13. UN Security Council Resolution 1737, S/RES 1737, December 27, 2006.

14. IAEA Board of Governors, “Cooperation Between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Agency in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737 (2006),” GOV/2007/7, February 9, 2007.

15. Ibid.

16. “Strengthening the Implementation of Article X of the Treaty of the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2005/WP.59, May 24, 2005 (U.S. Working Paper).

17. “Strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime,” NPT/CONF.2005/PC.III/WP.22, May 4, 2004 (French Working Paper); “Strengthening the NPT Against Withdrawal and Non-compliance: Suggestions for the Establishment of Procedures and Mechanisms,” NPT/CONF.2005/PC.III/WP.15, April 29, 2004 (German Working Paper).

18. “Diplomatic Sources Say U.S. Wants IAEA to Make Drastic Cuts in Iranian Projects,” Agence France-Presse, February 5, 2007.

19. “Chair’s Paper: 2007 NPT PrepCom Chair’s Factual Summary,” Reaching Critical Will, May 11, 2007.

20. Annette Berriman, Russell Leslie, and John Carlson, “Assessing Motivation as a Means of Determining the Risk of Proliferation,” Paper presented at the INMM 2004 symposium, Orlando, FL, July 2004.

21. SAGTAC is comprised of up to 20 experts from member states.