Wednesday, August 29, 2007

NPEC Report: IAEA Falling Behind and Risks Slipping Further

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) released yesterday an insightful report that paints a disturbing picture of how well the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is doing in keeping tabs on nuclear material and that the situation is actually primed to get worse.

The report, “Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom,” details the effectiveness of the IAEA’s safeguards system and how best to improve it, and is based on two years of research and meetings with officials from the IAEA and several governments, as well as outside experts.

The 34-page report’s key conclusion is that “the IAEA is already falling behind in achieving its (nuclear) material accountancy mission and risks slipping further unless members of the IAEA board independently and in concert take remedial actions in the next two to five years.

The report notes that “it would be a mistake to wait to see if civilian nuclear energy will expand... The reason why is simple: Even if nuclear power does not expand, the amounts of nuclear weapons usable materials that the IAEA must prevent from being diverted to make bombs is already very large and growing."

It finds that the IAEA has far too little money to safeguard against a seemingly ever growing amount of weapons-grade material. The report notes that while the quantity of highly enriched uranium and plutonium the agency inspects increased by more than six-fold from 1984 to 2004 and that the number of plants containing these materials more than tripled during that time, the IAEA’s safeguards budget has barely doubled. (Oh, and by the way, that six-fold increase is enough to make 12,000 to 21,000 crude nuclear weapons.)

The report also finds that the IAEA’s overly generous views of how much material must be diverted to make a bomb and how long it might take to convert this material into a nuclear weapon exacerbates this safeguards gap. Largely based on estimates over 30 years old, the report finds the IAEA’s figures were set anywhere from 25% to 800% too high. Already losing track of “many nuclear weapons-worth of material every year” at some plants, this means that the IAEA “is unable to provide timely warning of diversions from nuclear fuel-making plants (enrichment, reprocessing, and fuel processing plants utilizing nuclear materials directly useable to make bombs).”

The report offers seven recommendations on exactly what should be done. Included below are seven basic recommendations; the actual report details them at length and includes more specific advice.

1. Resist calls to read the NPT as recognizing the per se right to any and all nuclear technology, no matter how unsafeguardable or uneconomic such technology might be.

2. Distinguish between what actually can be effectively safeguarded, and what can be, at best, monitored.

3. Re-establish material accountancy as the IAEA’s top safeguards mission by pacing the size and growth in the agency’s safeguards budget against the size and growth of number of significant quantities of special material and bulk handling facilities that the agency must account for and inspect

4. Focus greater attention on useful safeguards activities that are necessary, but have yet to be fully developed.

5. Complement the existing UN formula for raising IAEA funding with a user-fee for safeguards paid for by each nuclear operator.

6. Establish default actions against various levels of IAEA safeguards agreement noncompliance.

7. Plan on meeting future safeguards requirements on the assumption that the most popular innovations – integrated safeguards, “proliferation-resistant” fuel-cycles, and international fuel assurances – may not achieve their stated goals or, worse, may undermine them.

NEPC’s full report is available here.


Russ Wellen said...

Wonder if this calls into question its conclusion from the Iran-IAEA "understanding note of modalities":

"The agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of the declared nuclear materials at the enrichment facilities in Iran and has therefore concluded that it remains in peaceful use."

The administration could jump all over the NPEC report in the march to war with Iran, if it hasn't already.

Jeff Lindemyer said...

That is very much a frightening possibility. I would like to point out that David Albright and Jacqueline Shire at the Institute for Science and International Security, in criticizing the IAEA document, write that "The agreement states that aside from the issues identified in the document, there are 'no other remaining issues and ambiguities regarding Iran’s past nuclear program and activities.' This is a sweeping statement that sets an unfortunate precedent regarding Iran’s past nuclear activities, about which little is known in important areas." They also note, "Of special concern is the statement 'The Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of the declared nuclear materials at the enrichment facilities in Iran and has therefore concluded that it remains in peaceful use.' The peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program is a function of several issues, not simply the diversion or non-diversion of declared nuclear material." Their full statement can be found here: