Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Security: Whither the IAEA?

By Weitz, Richard | World Affairs, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Security: Whither the IAEA?


Weitz, Richard, World Affairs


The disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that began on March 11th has again underscored both the importance and the limited capabilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It will cost billions of dollars to stabilize the plant, close it down, decommission the six reactors, and mitigate the radioactive contamination. While overseeing this difficult process and dealing with safety challenges of the other four hundred and forty aging reactors around the world (as well as the dozens of new ones under construction, mostly in China), the IAEA will continue to experience significant difficulty in pursuing an even more vital matter: dealing with the continued nuclear weapons activities of rogue states. The agency's response to these two threats of nuclear proliferation and safety has been ineffectual and shows the need to reform the organization's global safety and emergency networks and strengthen its nonproliferation activities.

The roles, authorities, and effectiveness of the IAEA have become inseparable from those of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The five countries possessing nuclear weapons when the treaty was ratified--Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States--have committed to limiting their nuclear assistance to nonnuclear weapons states (NNWS) to nonmilitary applications and to reducing and eventually eliminating their own nuclear weapons.

In exchange for eligibility to receive foreign civilian nuclear assistance, the NNWS agree to allow the IAEA to monitor their nuclear programs and safeguard their nuclear materials in order to verify that they are not being used illicitly for military purposes. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty empowers the IAEA to verify allegations that any nonnuclear weapons states that are parties to the NPT might be violating its provisions. The IAEA's thirty-five-nation Board of Governors can then refer the case to the UN Security Council, which can impose sanctions and adopt other measures to enforce compliance with the NPT.

Revelations after the end of the Cold War made clear that the IAEA's traditional safeguard system needed to be strengthened for the agency to achieve its nonproliferation objectives. The "inventory checklist model" in which the agency's inspectors monitored and inspected declared nuclear activities could not cope with secret nuclear programs at undeclared sites. In particular, inspectors found after the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein had been conducting a covert nuclear weapons program in parallel with its civilian nuclear research and energy programs, which had been declared to the IAEA and were being monitored. In response, the Board of Governors approved a new "Model Additional Protocol" as a voluntary supplement to the traditional comprehensive safeguards agreement that requires participating governments to declare more information to the IAEA and allow the agency more extensive access and inspection privileges at sites where undeclared nuclear activities may occur.

In recent years, the agency has investigated incidents of noncompliance with the NPT in Libya, North Korea, Iran, and Syria. But despite the Additional Protocol and other post-Cold War measures intended to strengthen its nonproliferation efforts, only in Libya did the agency succeed in dismantling an undeclared nuclear program--and, as in Iraq, that achievement only occurred thanks to independent Western coercive action.

Despite having entered into a safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1980, Libyan authorities subsequently pursued both undeclared uranium enrichment and plutonium separation programs in order to produce fissile materials suitable for manufacturing nuclear weapons. Although the IAEA failed to detect Libya's covert program in the first place, it played an important role in verifying Libya's subsequent dismantlement of its illegal nuclear projects. …

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