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IAEA Nuclear Oversight Grew in 2019
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June 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitored a growing amount of nuclear material in 2019, but persistent security and political challenges prevented the agency from understanding the full scope of nuclear activities in some nations. The agency circulated its annual report of its safeguards activity in April, disclosing that its personnel conducted 2,179 inspections in 183 states in 2019. It now oversees over 8 percent more nuclear material than the previous year. Overall, the material would be enough for more than 216,400 nuclear weapons, which the agency calls “significant quantities.”

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi (left) tours the agency's Nuclear Material Laboratory in January. The lab is one of the tools the agency uses to monitor nuclear activities around the world. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)The annual safeguards implementation report reflects the global scale of the IAEA’s role in ensuring that nuclear materials in peaceful facilities are not diverted to military uses. It summarizes the agency’s activities to implement safeguards across member states and its conclusion about the status of nuclear materials in states where safeguards are conducted. The agency has given the report only to its member states. A copy of the document was provided to

The report also highlights difficulties in meeting those safeguards goals. In the case of Libya, for example, the IAEA was no longer able to confirm that there was “no indication of undeclared nuclear material or activities” or any diversion of nuclear material. According to the report, the IAEA cannot verify “the actual status of nuclear material previously declared by Libya” at a particular location. It is likely that the country’s unstable security situation has made it difficult for IAEA inspectors to conduct their routine work.

The report also highlighted difficulties in understanding all nuclear activities in North Korea and Syria. The agency has not conducted any on-site inspections in North Korea since April 2009, when IAEA inspectors were asked to leave. But the agency intensified its efforts in 2019 to enhance agency readiness “to play its essential role in verifying” the country’s nuclear program once a political agreement is reached, according to the report.

The report concluded that there were “no indications of the operation” in 2019 of North Korea’s five-megawatts electric reactor, which produces plutonium for nuclear weapons, or at a facility that separates plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel. But there have been “indications consistent with the use of the reported centrifuge enrichment facility.”

In Syria, IAEA inspectors visited the nation’s Miniature Neutron Source Reactor, which contains less than one kilogram of weapons-grade uranium, and another site in Damascus in 2019, but the agency continues to press Syria to cooperate with the agency’s investigation into a building destroyed in 2008 that “was very likely” a nuclear reactor that Syria failed to declare to the IAEA.

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) requires its states-parties to implement a safeguards agreement with the IAEA to ensure that nuclear activities are peaceful. The safeguards agreements are to be negotiated within 180 days of ratifying the treaty, but the 2019 report noted that 10 states have not yet completed safeguards agreements with the IAEA.

Since 1997, IAEA member states have had the option to implement a more intrusive additional protocol to their safeguards agreement, which gives inspectors more information about a country’s nuclear program, expands access to sites, and allows for shorter-notice inspections. Of the 183 NPT states with safeguards agreements, 131 also implemented an additional protocol in 2019, an increase from the 129 states with additional protocols in 2018.

The IAEA concluded that, in 69 of the 131 states, “all nuclear material remained in peaceful activities” and that there was “no indication of undeclared nuclear material or activities” or any diversion of nuclear material. Libya was the only country that was included in that list for 2018, but not 2019.

For 62 of those states that implement a safeguards agreement and an additional protocol, the IAEA determined that “declared nuclear material remained in peaceful purposes” in 2019 but that “evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities” remain ongoing. Iran is one of the 62 countries.

The IAEA noted that some states that have negotiated additional protocols have yet to provide the agency with all of the required information under the agreement and that some states restricted access to inspectors, but that progress is being made in providing more timely information.

The safeguards report also said that three states did not allow inspectors to access certain areas within declared facilities, only one of those cases was resolved in 2019, and five states did not provide “timely access” for inspectors. The report did not specify the states.

Forty-four states are implementing safeguards but not additional protocols. The IAEA noted that, for these states, “declared nuclear material remained in peaceful activities” and conducted 146 inspections at sites in these countries.

States that are not party to the NPT can also conclude safeguards agreements with the IAEA. India, Israel, and Pakistan have all negotiated safeguards agreements for specific locations.

The IAEA conducted 93 inspections at locations under safeguards in those three countries in 2019, a slight increase from the 78 inspections the prior year. The agency also recorded an increase in the nuclear materials under safeguards in those countries, from 3,938 kilograms in 2018 to 4,260 kilograms in 2019.

The IAEA also conducts safeguards inspections in the five nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), which are not required to implement safeguards under the NPT. All five, however, have negotiated what are called “voluntary offer” safeguards and additional protocols with the IAEA, which covers more than 35,000 significant quantities of nonmilitary nuclear materials and facilities. The agency conducted 79 inspections at sites in the five nuclear-weapon states in 2019.

In addition, the report contains information about IAEA efforts to address new technical challenges. According to the report, the IAEA continued to work on safeguards applications for new types of facilities, including small modular reactors and geological repositories for spent fuel. One of the new technologies successfully tested in 2019 is an unattended monitoring system for cylinders of uranium gas at enrichment facilities.

The report also documents IAEA sampling and deployment of technologies used for conducting safeguards inspections. According to the report, the IAEA collected 442 uranium samples, 40 plutonium samples, and 405 environmental samples in 2019. The report noted that the total installation of surveillance cameras was 1,425 by the end of 2019, including new underwater cameras for spent fuel ponds, and that inspectors tested new software for reviewing data collected by IAEA surveillance systems.


IAEA Iran Inspections Increased in 2019

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted more inspections in Iran in 2019 than the prior year, according to an annual report on the agency’s application of safeguards.

The IAEA’s annual safeguards implementation report noted that Iran received 432 inspections during 2019, an increase from 385 the previous year. The IAEA also conducted 33 complementary access visits in Iran in 2019, according to the report, which accounted for about 20 percent of 149 total complementary access inspections conducted in 183 states throughout the year.

Complementary access provisions allow inspectors to visit sites on short notice and are included in an additional protocol to a state’s safeguards agreement that many have adopted. In addition to allowing complementary access inspections, the additional protocol provides the agency with expanded access to sites and information about a country’s nuclear program.

Iran is provisionally implementing the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement as part of the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The IAEA concluded that Iran, along with 61 other states implementing safeguards agreements and additional protocols, had not diverted any nuclear materials from peaceful activities during 2019, but stated that “evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities” remain ongoing.

The IAEA has used similar language to describe Iran’s nuclear program in its quarterly reports on the country’s implementation of the JCPOA.

Kazzem Gharibabdi, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, said on May 6 that the report highlights Tehran’s cooperation with the agency. But he warned that cooperation is “not the only option” available to Iran, and the country may revise its safeguards commitments in light of Iran not receiving sanctions relief envisioned by the JCPOA after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions.

Iran has not complied with all agency requests to visit undeclared facilities, according to a February report on Iran by the IAEA. The safeguards implementation report did not provide any details on the agency’s outstanding access requests.

The report also noted that the IAEA Iran team comprised of 269 inspectors in 2019, down slightly from 276 the previous year, and spent 20.4 million euros implementing Iran’s safeguards and JCPOA-related monitoring provisions.—KELSEY DAVENPORT