LBJ's Safeguards Legacy

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Op-Ed Arms Control Wonk
About a year before the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was opened for signature in 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a pitch to the non-nuclear weapon states on the subject of IAEA safeguards that would be applied under the treaty.
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When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in 1957, its member states began putting flesh on the bones of the IAEA’s statutory verification mandate. Then “and for many years thereafter,” according to David Fischer’s seminal history, “there were no serious proposals for applying safeguards” in the nuclear weapon states (NWS). These countries already had nuclear arms, and the most important objective of the future Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) would be, in the minds of many of its advocates, to prevent other nations from joining their ranks.

Given that background, a number of non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), which had been enlisted by the nuclear-armed powers to join the NPT complained that their nuclear industries would suffer discrimination under the treaty because they would be legally subject to intrusive IAEA surveillance while NWS would not.

So about a year before the NPT was opened for signature in 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a pitch to the NNWS on the subject of IAEA safeguards that would be applied under the treaty:

We do not believe that the safeguards we propose will interfere with the peaceful activities of any country. And I want to make it clear to the world that we in the United States are not asking any country to accept safeguards that we are unwilling to accept ourselves. So I am, today, announcing that when such safeguards are applied under the [NPT] the United States will permit the IAEA to apply its safeguards to all nuclear activities in the United States excluding only those with direct national security significance.

That was Johnson’s idea. In practice, it didn’t quite work out like that.  The aspirations of universality and equity were compromised by political and economic realities.

After the NPT entered into force in 1970, all of the countries which joined the NPT as NWS eventually concluded so-called Voluntary Offer Agreements (VOA) with the IAEA permitting the IAEA to safeguard materials and activities in these states. The preambles of all five documents made clear that the NWS took this step to further the universal acceptance of IAEA safeguards–including of course among those states that had objected to discrimination.

The text of the U.S. and United Kingdom agreements in theory give the IAEA access along the lines Johnson pledged in 1967.  VOAs signed by the other three NWS were more restrictive in scope. But none of these agreements give the IAEA anything close to rights of access to nuclear materials and activities that it enjoys in NNWS with NPT-type comprehensive safeguards agreements.

So for nearly half a century application of IAEA safeguards in NWS has been extremely limited. The main reason is that safeguards cost money, while the marginal utility of safeguarding an additional activity or an amount of nuclear material in a NWS would in most cases be minimal or even zero.

That utility would be greater if the IAEA safeguarded all peaceful-use activities and materials in NWS. Safeguards could then provide assurance that the nuclear materials processed in facilities used for peaceful aims are not being diverted to military uses. The value of safeguards would be indisputable if the IAEA were tasked to verify that the nuclear-armed powers were not producing any fissile material for weapons, if and when these states agree to a fissile material production cutoff treaty (FMCT).

Soon after U.S. President Bill Clinton proposed such a treaty in 1993, the IAEA calculated internally that it could put all civilian nuclear activities in the NWS under safeguards at a cost exceeding twice the IAEA’s annual safeguards budget. In 1996, Brookhaven National Laboratory in the U.S. estimated that the task of putting all the nuclear materials at about 875 locations in the five official NWS plus India, Pakistan, and Israel, would require 35,000 person-days of inspection per year compared to the IAEA’s then-current requirement of 8,200 person-days.

Since then, international will to negotiate an FMCT has gathered steam, and future estimates of the cost of verification for an FMCT might take into account new cost-saving safeguards approaches. But over the last quarter-century the IAEA and its member states have assumed that launching safeguards programs in NWS designed to reap significant and direct nonproliferation benefits would dramatically increase the IAEA’s costs. If you ask around in Vienna today you will be told that the cost of applying safeguards for an FMCT might be about three times the current IAEA safeguards budget. If so, depending on how you cut it the price tag might be over $300 million per year.

During Mohamed ElBaradei’s three terms as IAEA Director General through 2009, the IAEA had a policy of not favoring additional safeguards in NWS unless there was a good reason. I know that was the policy because during these 12 years I kept asking about it and each time the answer was the same: “We’ll do it only if it is justified by a specific benefit and/or if a member state is willing to pay for it.”

That has happened on occasion. The U.S. has paid to have the IAEA verify downblending of high-enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium, and for safeguarding nuclear material no longer needed for national defense. The IAEA applies safeguards on one of two Russian-supplied uranium enrichment plants in China because Russia called for that in its supply agreement. IAEA safeguards are applied on plutonium in France and the U.K. because that is specified by some commercial contracts for reprocessing services.

June Board Meeting

Still, some member states continue to press the case for more IAEA safeguards in NWS for the same reason they did back in the 1960s: equity and universality.

Three weeks ago, the IAEA’s board of governors met in Vienna and considered the IAEA’s annual Safeguards Implementation Report (SIR) for 2012. A few states then raised the issue of safeguards in NWS. One governor took the floor to “encourage all NWS to expand the scope of their VOAs, particularly referring to enrichment and reprocessing plants.” He specifically made reference to the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and in particular to its Action 30:

The Conference calls for the wider application of safeguards to peaceful nuclear facilities in the nuclear-weapon States, under the relevant voluntary offer safeguards agreements, in the most economic and practical way possible, taking into account the availability of IAEA resources, and stresses that comprehensive safeguards and additional protocols should be universally applied once the complete elimination of nuclear weapons has been achieved. 

The 2010 NPT Review Conference Final Document was adopted by consensus, and it is therefore not a coincidence that the language of Action 30 included the dampening reference to the voluntary nature of NWS’ commitments and to resource availability.

Indeed the topic of resource availability commanded most of the attention of board members at this month’s meeting, and the failure of the 35 governors by the end of week of June 3 to approve the IAEA budget for the coming year underscored that states are engaged on a broad North-South front over how much money the IAEA should get.

In the meantime, as safeguards costs have increased, the IAEA is relying more on extra-budgetary contributions from a handful of advanced states, led by the United States and other NWS. Some board members have questioned this practice. The one cited above, for example, remarked this month that extrabudgetary safeguards funding challenges the “principles of impartiality and independence” which is best ensured when “international organizations cover their whole staff costs.”

The unique status of NWS’ safeguards obligations–compared to comprehensive safeguards agreements for NNWS–has also indirectly figured in ongoing discussions between the IAEA secretariat and member states about the future of the IAEA safeguards system. As I explained here some states, and Russia in particular, have voiced reservations that “mission creep” could, in their view, lead to an unwarranted expansion of the IAEA’s authority into states which do not have comprehensive safeguards agreements–including the NWS.

What to conclude from the above?

  • From the very beginning of the NPT, a number of NNWS have sought to reduce the level of discrimination between NWS and NNWS in the application of IAEA safeguards. That discrimination arose from a widespread understanding that the NPT was intended first and foremost to deter NNWS from obtaining nuclear arms.
  • Many states continue to see the virtue of making the safeguards system more equitable. This desire has been expressed routinely during NPT Review Conferences since the 1980s, most recently in 2010.
  • But both political and economic realities stand in the way. Neither the majority of the IAEA’s advanced member states, nor developing countries with very little to safeguard, are inclined to agree that the IAEA’s safeguards resources should be significantly increased, let alone to account for more materials and activities in NWS. In the meantime, most extrabudgetary contributions for safeguards will come from NWS and other advanced countries which have the most resources.
  • The IAEA and its members should concern themselves with the future cost of safeguards. The IAEA might consider apportioning future safeguards costs according to the verification burden in each state. Right now, however, the safeguards costs in some developing countries exceed their annual contributions to the IAEA’s budget. In the view of some states, an expansion of extrabudgetary contributions would challenge the IAEA’s verification independence.
  • Perhaps a greater commitment by NWS to safeguarding nuclear materials and activities on their territories would to a limited extent alleviate equity deficits objected to by many NNWS.
  • The fewer nuclear weapons there are in the world, the more important safeguards will become. But expanding safeguards in NWS now would not likely result in greater support among critical states withholding support for nonproliferation measures such as the Comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Test Ban Treaty or an FMCT. Overall, developing countries and most NNWS remain far more focused on the NWS’ responsibility for disarmament than on lack of equity in the application of IAEA safeguards.
  • Applying IAEA safeguards to specific, significant peaceful-use installations in NWS may be justified for nonproliferation, security, and transparency reasons

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk

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