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March 7, 2018
High-Level Panel Calls for Stronger IAEA

Kyle Fishman

In a May report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, a panel of prominent international leaders recommends that the agency assume additional responsibilities and perhaps double its budget by 2020 in order to ensure a substantial expansion in nuclear power while preventing nuclear weapons proliferation.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei established the commission in the fall of 2007 with the purpose of addressing future challenges to the agency. The 18-member group, composed of ministers, academics, politicians, scientists, and business leaders, was chaired by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and included other notable figures such as former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).

The enhanced role for the IAEA, the commission argues, will require concrete changes within the agency. Administrators must work to modernize infrastructure, focusing on overlooked areas and making safeguards, research and development, and other activities more efficient. The report also reveals that sweeping staffing reforms are necessary, as one-half of the agency’s top management and senior inspectors will be forced to retire within the next five years. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reached similar conclusions about IAEA inspectors in a November 2005 report. (See ACT, December 2005. )

Improving efficiency and attracting personnel are only part of what is necessary to equip the IAEA to meet existing and proposed obligations; that ultimate goal will require considerable increases in investment. The commission calls for a one-time budget increase of approximately $120 million and consistent annual increases estimated at $75 million for several years afterward to deal with the increased workload. It also advocates a more reliable system of funding than the one in place now, which is essentially voluntary.

The commission seeks to reformulate the IAEA’s mission and resources at a time when the agency is challenged by renewed global interest in nuclear energy production and growing concerns that states or nonstate actors may divert nuclear materials to nuclear weapons purposes. The report notes that the amount of nuclear material in the world is increasing at a tremendous rate, having multiplied tenfold from 1984 to 2007, implying increased commensurate safeguard responsibilities. IAEA safeguards are meant to ensure that civil nuclear fuel and facilities are not diverted to weapons purposes.

In recent years, safeguard responsibility has increased in depth as well as in breadth. The 1997 Model Additional Protocol strengthens IAEA safeguards by improving the agency’s ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities, allowing inspectors to visit any suspected sites within states-parties. The commission recommends that future nuclear cooperation be contingent on compliance not only with an additional protocol, but with an “Additional Protocol Plus.” Such an agreement would allow inspectors unfettered access to information, sites, and individuals related to nuclear activities, all of which might be necessary to ensure the peacefulness of states’ nuclear programs.

To date, 117 states have signed additional protocols with the IAEA. However, some key non-nuclear-weapon states, notably Brazil and Egypt, have refused to sign, arguing that they should not be asked to take on additional responsibilities while nuclear-weapon states have failed to fulfill their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) commitment to disarmament.

In addition, the panel suggests that the IAEA’s current authorities be interpreted as giving it the responsibility to inspect for indicators of nuclear weaponization activities and recommends that the agency establish a small team of specialists for that purpose. Traditionally, the agency has only sought to ensure that nuclear materials are not diverted from peaceful purposes.

The report also calls for the IAEA to improve the security of nuclear materials in an effort to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism. It says that ensuring the protection of nuclear materials includes fulfilling obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1540, intended to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, for which the IAEA can help establish and verify binding security standards against a minimum level of threat. More focused efforts against proliferation, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, also play a role in this process, according to the report.

Citing economic development needs and environmental concerns, the commission argues that the IAEA should continue to be active in safely and securely expanding the nonmilitary use of nuclear power. It supports the creation of a global nuclear safety network composed of states, firms, and organizations that would promote the exchange of knowledge and experience and provide training on IAEA safety standards.

The report also echoes ElBaradei’s advocacy for multilateralizing the nuclear fuel cycle, with the possibility of an IAEA fuel inventory of last resort. (See ACT, November 2003. ) The commission indicates that “such comprehensive services could be made so attractive that few states would want to follow any other approach,” easing concerns over states’ attempts to privately complete the fuel cycle, which many see as the first step in weapons development.

Finally, the report maintains that the IAEA’s independent and definitive verification of the nuclear disarmament process is vital to sustaining the nonproliferation regime, calling on states not party to the NPT to join new partnerships for disarmament. It also sees the agency working to reduce demand for nuclear weapons through their devaluation on the part of nuclear-weapon states, encouraging the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones, and more generally working to mitigate international conflict.