"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
U.S. Launches New Safeguards Initiative

Peter Crail

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Sept. 11 launched an initiative aimed at bolstering international safeguards over civilian nuclear programs. According to a Sept. 11 NNSA fact sheet, the Next Generation Safeguards Initiative is based on a conclusion by the agency that a comprehensive effort to “revitalize safeguards technology and [the] human resource base” was necessary to address “emerging safeguards challenges” faced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In particular, the initiative is geared toward further developing U.S. technical capacities and expertise, which would then be used to enhance the international safeguards system carried out by the IAEA. The initiative is also intended to form international partnerships to bolster safeguards. Representatives from 11 countries and the IAEA took part in a Sept. 11-12 conference kicking off the initiative.

In a Sept. 12 conference summary NNSA Assistant Deputy Administrator Adam Scheinman indicated that some of the technologies needed to meet safeguards challenges included environmental monitoring, sampling analysis, and improvements to the IAEA Safeguards Analytical Laboratory. He also noted the potential for regional and international training programs to develop safeguards expertise.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) asserted in a Sept. 11 keynote speech during the conference that the United States needs to improve its assistance to international safeguards by reinvesting in domestic safeguards expertise. He stated that the United States should work with universities to train “the next generation of American safeguards professionals” and create incentives for federal employees to pursue safeguards work.

The initiative joins a number of efforts to adapt the international safeguards process to developments in the use of nuclear energy and the risks of proliferation.

In June 2005, following a call by President George W. Bush the year before, the IAEA Board of Governors established the Advisory Committee on Safeguards and Verification in order to advise the board on methods for improving the agency’s safeguards in the face of increasing proliferation challenges. The committee had a two-year term and concluded its work in June 2007 without reaching consensus on any recommendations. (See ACT, July/August 2007.)

In May, a high-level panel of 18 international leaders delivered a report to the agency providing recommendations on how it would address a number of global developments. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei established the panel in the fall of 2007 to advise the agency on ways to meet future challenges. The panel’s recommendations addressed several avenues for improving the effectiveness of safeguards, including promoting the adoption of country-specific versions of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol by limiting the IAEA’s nuclear cooperation only to states that have agreed to it. Countries that agree to the protocol grant the agency more intrusive verification measures that improve its ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities.

Scheinman said Sept. 12 that the growing safeguards challenges included “expanding interest in nuclear power, high profile investigations, and limitations on available safeguards technology and expertise.”

A number of countries, including Finland, Japan, and South Korea, have announced plans to expand their nuclear power programs. Many countries currently without nuclear power programs, including states in the developing world, also have expressed interest in a nuclear power sector as well. (See ACT, May 2008.) In addition, the agency Aug. 1 approved a revised safeguards agreement with India that will permit inspectors access to more of India’s designated civilian nuclear facilities. (See ACT, September 2008.) India pledged in March 2006 to place 14 existing facilities under safeguards.

Beyond the IAEA’s routine monitoring, the agency has been carrying out a more intrusive investigation into Iran’s nuclear program since late 2002. Since July 2007, the agency has also maintained monitors in North Korea through extrabudgetary funds provided by the European Union, Japan, and the United States.

In addition to facing challenges from increasing demands in the number of countries requiring safeguards and the requirements of additional protocols, the IAEA has been facing structural difficulties as well.

A particular problem relates to the agency’s funding. Acting under a “zero real-growth” budget mandate since the 1980s, the agency has faced budget constraints that senior agency officials state jeopardize key IAEA functions. (See ACT, July/August 2007.) ElBaradei told the agency’s board June 2 that the agency has had to use its regular budget to support extrabudgetary activities “at the expense of its ability to effectively implement the regular budget activities and core projects.”

Moreover, just as Lugar noted the need to develop safeguards expertise, the IAEA is poised to lose much of its own expertise in several years. The May report by the high-level panel indicated that, in the next five years, more than half of its senior management and inspectors are due to retire. It notes that this problem is compounded by the difficulty in recruiting and retaining experts with skills in high demand in the private sector.