Strengthening Nuclear Safeguards: Urgent Action Is Needed to Shore Up the Ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to Detect Nuclear Weapons Programs and Safeguard Peaceful Nuclear Programs

By Ferguson, Charles D. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Strengthening Nuclear Safeguards: Urgent Action Is Needed to Shore Up the Ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to Detect Nuclear Weapons Programs and Safeguard Peaceful Nuclear Programs


Ferguson, Charles D., Issues in Science and Technology


As events in Iran and elsewhere illustrate, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is confronting a crisis in its ability to detect nuclear weapons programs and to safeguard peaceful nuclear programs. This crisis stems from a number of factors: discriminatory rules in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), inadequate application of nuclear safeguards where needed, limited authority for the IAEA to investigate possible clandestine nuclear programs, personnel rules that limit access to the best-qualified inspectors, and lack of technical resources and funding. All of these factors can be altered in ways that will strengthen the IAEA and help it do a better job.

Safeguards subject civilian nuclear programs to inspection and monitoring. By doing so, safeguards shed light on a country's nuclear activities and can sound an alarm if suspicious activities are occurring.

Most countries have allowed intrusive inspections into their nuclear programs because they stand to gain in two respects. First, by opening up these programs, countries obtain access to external suppliers of nuclear fuel, reactors, and other essential technologies. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 45-nation group of leading nuclear suppliers, have agreed to condition sales of nuclear fuel and technologies on non-nuclear weapon states' acceptance of full-scope safeguards on their nuclear programs. Second, as part of this bargain, countries under safeguards help assure their neighbors that they are not making nuclear explosives.

Unfortunately, safeguards agreements have loopholes, and some countries have exploited them to develop nuclear weapons programs. Although the IAEA has plugged many of these gaps, better safeguards are needed. Moreover, the need for safeguards improvements will become more urgent if there is a major expansion in nuclear energy. This expansion seems likely; in just the past two years, some two dozen countries have expressed interest in acquiring their first commercial nuclear power plants. This projected major growth in nuclear facilities will place increasing demands on IAEA safeguards.

Standardizing the safeguards rules

President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations on December 8, 1953, helped give birth to the IAEA and to modern safeguards. Attempting to lift the shroud of secrecy on nuclear technologies, which were mainly confined to the few major powers that had developed or were developing nuclear weapons, he envisioned an international agency that would encourage the use of peaceful nuclear energy throughout the world. That same agency, which became the IAEA in 1957, was also entrusted with safeguarding these technologies.

The first safeguards agreements were strictly bilateral arrangements between the seller and buyer states. The IAEA's role was limited to monitoring the use of the purchased technology, typically a nuclear reactor. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, safeguards were not required on all aspects of nuclear programs in all countries. The NPT, which came into force in 1970, made safeguards more comprehensive and applied them more globally. But because the nations that already possessed nuclear weapons would not accept mandatory safeguards, the NPT applies different standards to different categories of countries.

The NPT established three such categories. The first includes the five countries defined as nuclear weapon states because each had tested a nuclear explosive device before January 1, 1967, the cutoff date in the NPT. The countries are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, The treaty defines any other country as a non-nuclear weapon state. More than 180 countries falling under that second definition have ratified the NPT. Three others--India, Israel, and Pakistan--make up the third category: countries that have never signed the NPT. Not coincidentally, all three now possess nuclear weapons. …

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