Letter to the Editor: Additional Protocols as a Condition of Nuclear Supply

John Carlson

Fred McGoldrick (“The Road Ahead for Export Controls,” January/February 2011) notes that an important outstanding item for the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is to reach agreement on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) additional protocol as a condition of new nuclear supply. The additional protocol strengthens the IAEA’s ability to detect undeclared nuclear material and activities by requiring states to provide further information and access for safeguards inspectors. In 1997 the IAEA Board of Governors asked each non-nuclear-weapon state that is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to conclude an additional protocol. This is an obvious and necessary step to strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

One reason the NSG has struggled to reach agreement is that two members, Brazil and Argentina, have not signed additional protocols. To date, Brazil has refused to do so, and in view of their joint safeguards arrangements, Argentina feels it cannot move without Brazil. The NSG has developed compromise language that appears to meet the Argentina-Brazil situation. Now, however, it seems South Africa is the chief obstacle. This is surprising, considering South Africa was one of the early states to conclude an additional protocol in 2002.

As of December 20, 2010, 135 states—two-thirds of the NPT parties—had signed an additional protocol. This included just less than 90 percent of non-nuclear-weapon states with significant nuclear activities; 74 percent of such states had their protocol in force. So the additional protocol is now well established by international practice as part of the IAEA safeguards system. But the ongoing refusal of states such as Brazil, Egypt, Syria, and Venezuela to sign an additional protocol, as well as Iran’s “suspension” of its protocol, reflects some serious issues: (1) a polarization of attitudes toward safeguards, particularly worrying because it could imply a wavering of support for nonproliferation; (2) the view of some that conclusion of an additional protocol is optional; and (3) the unwillingness to date of major suppliers to require an additional protocol as a matter of national policy.

McGoldrick mentions the Nonaligned Movement’s opposition at the 2010 NPT Review Conference to a consensus statement that having an additional protocol in place is the NPT safeguards standard. This is an example of issue 1. The IAEA has emphasized that, without an additional protocol, it is unable to provide credible assurance of the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities. It seems many nonaligned countries have lost sight of the importance of safeguards as a technical verification mechanism that benefits not the West or the “North,” but every state. Safeguards are an essential tool to resolve suspicions, to help states demonstrate to neighbors and the international community that they are meeting their treaty commitments. Opponents of the additional protocol are compromising their own national interest, which is to have a safeguards system that is more, not less, effective. Refusal to accept the most effective form of safeguards erodes the vital confidence-building role of safeguards.

Issue 2 involves arguments too complex to analyze fully here. Suffice it to say, under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon states have committed to accept safeguards on all their nuclear material; that means they should have no undeclared nuclear material. But absent an additional protocol, the IAEA is unable to provide credible assurance that a state has met this commitment. To argue that the additional protocol is “optional” ignores the point that the protocol is needed to discharge the verification mandate the IAEA has been given by the NPT.

States supporting nonproliferation should be doing all they can to persuade the holdouts to conclude an additional protocol without further delay. This is particularly the case for nuclear suppliers, who have some leverage. The major suppliers are members of the Group of Eight (G-8), whose summits for several years have endorsed the additional protocol as a condition of supply. Yet, a number of G-8 members are considering nuclear supply contracts with states that have no additional protocol and even make a point of refusing it. McGoldrick comments that convincing the few holdouts on the additional protocol condition may require high-level intervention by the major nuclear suppliers. High-level intervention is needed not only within the NSG, but directly with every state that asserts less-effective safeguards are good enough. Maybe a campaign at the heads-of-government level should be considered, similar to the nuclear security summit process that was so successful last year.

John Carlson was director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office until October 2010. He represented Australia in the Model Additional Protocol negotiations and chaired the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation from 2001 to 2006. He now advises the Nuclear Threat Initiative and others on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament issues.