Challenge and Response

The safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has come under increasing stress on two fronts during the last three decades. Greater use of nuclear energy means that more activities, materials, and technologies are subject to verification, while member states are not willing to pay for more routine inspections to assure that states meet criteria for safeguards compliance. At the same time, the IAEA has been challenged by undisclosed activities in a number of countries; since the 1990s the list includes Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, South Korea, and Syria. When the infractions took place, these states were obligated to declare all their nuclear activities to the IAEA.

Half a century ago, IAEA safeguards were not designed to snuff out undeclared activities such as Iraq’s hidden program during the 1980s to make nuclear arms or South Korean lab experiments ten years later to enrich uranium. To detect non-compliance, the IAEA has been developing new methodologies, capabilities, and technologies, and in 1997 it requested and obtained more legal authority, expressed in the voluntary Additional Protocol, to obtain greater access to information from states subject to safeguards. To evaluate states’ safeguards compliance, today the IAEA is using more information, and more kinds of information, than ever before.

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
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The Additional Protocol provides the IAEA the means to derive a complete picture of states’ nuclear fuel cycles, from uranium mining to disposal of nuclear waste. Without this instrument, the IAEA cannot be confident that all nuclear activities in a state are declared, and the IAEA is using as many information sources as possible to develop a holistic picture of states’ entire nuclear programs. For the IAEA to make effective use of all this data, greater cooperation from states is necessary, and so governments and the IAEA agreed in principle that states which are transparent should be rewarded by fewer routine inspections.

The IAEA now relies on data from its own inspections, commercial satellite imagery, specialized information databases and, in relatively few cases, third-party information provided by states about other states’ nuclear activities.

Theory and Practice

In practice, the transition from a system based on routine material accounting to one relying on myriad information sources has taken some time, and many questions have been raised by governments, especially during meetings of the IAEA’s 35-member board of governors. These quarterly conclaves exposed misunderstandings and disagreements about the future of the safeguards system, most often at the interface between technical experts responsible for designing and implementing safeguards, and diplomats acting on instructions from central governments.

In recent years some states were confused by IAEA’s re-branding of the safeguards evolution process; it wasn’t clear whether the terms “information-driven safeguards,”  “integrated safeguards,” and, finally, a “state-level concept” for safeguards were interchangeable. Governments wanted to know which states would be subject to a state-level approach, after some experts proposed to apply it in some states which have nuclear weapons. Other questions arose about the IAEA’s capacity to collect, manage, and vet all the data necessary to implement the state-level concept, and the IAEA had to clarify whether its ongoing deep investigation into Iran’s nuclear program was meant to be a trial run for safeguards approaches that it later intended to apply routinely elsewhere. Finally, and especially at board meetings since 2012, questions have been raised, especially by Russia, about whether the IAEA’s use of third-party information would render the safeguards system biased and subjective.

Russia’s Interest

In a July, 2012 speech to Russia’s diplomatic corps, President Vladimir Putin urged his ambassadors to more vigorously defend Russian national interests, making reference to Libya, Syria, and Iran’s nuclear program. At about this time, Russia became more assertive in questioning the IAEA’s safeguards concept.

Russian diplomats in Vienna on the receiving end of Putin’s message were aware that safeguards development at the IAEA had been considerably guided by senior staff who previously served in U.S. government-affiliated labs and agencies. Some Russian experts fit this fact into an emerging Russian narrative asserting that Russia was brushed aside by the West after it “won” the Cold War. Similarly, Russians explain that Moscow recently terminated some U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation because it never evolved beyond a U.S.-dominated donor-recipient relationship.

In October, the IAEA held an international symposium on safeguards that showcased development of the state-level concept. Russia asked many probing questions at this meeting, and reiterated concerns that the IAEA would be misled by states which provided it self-interested third-party information.

Questions Russia asked at the symposium are good questions, and the IAEA must answer them to the satisfaction of governments if the state-level concept is to continue to develop. Ambassador Grigory Berdennikov made a general statement (see attached "Statement by Grigory Berdennikov") elements of which may reflect the views of a number of countries, pointing out where progress has been made, but also where clarification is still needed. Western observers felt that Russia’s interventions at the symposium were too aggressive and “political,” befitting the IAEA boardroom but not a technical expert meeting. Russian interventions at IAEA technical safeguards meetings, participants said, have been constructive.

Ambassadors in Vienna as a general rule do not make policy, and we can safely assume that Russian officials weighing in on safeguards development are guided by executive orders from Moscow. Given that the U.S. and other Western states have in public without reservations strongly backed the IAEA’s efforts, a continued downturn in Russia’s relations with the West could spill over into a deadlock on safeguards including in 2015 when the IAEA again may report on this matter to member states.

That doesn’t have to happen if the West and the IAEA work carefully with Russia in ongoing technical advisory meetings to address concerns about subjectivity; if Russian experts effectively communicate the results of this collaboration to the Kremlin; and, finally, if President Putin keeps Russia’s safeguards diplomacy firmly focused on his country’s long-established nonproliferation interests.

As Ambassador Berdennikov pointed out in October, Russia from the very beginning has been firmly committed to IAEA safeguards. During the Cold War, there were moments when the mutual self-interest of both superpowers in nonproliferation provided their only channel of communication. A quarter century after the Cold War ended, Russia retains its fundamental interest that nuclear weapons do not proliferate, most recently during P5+1 negotiations with Iran.

At this conference here in Moscow this morning, a Russian official was asked whether Moscow regretted having joined Western powers in passing U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea for developing nuclear weapons, given that Pyongyang remains defiant. He answered that Russia had no regrets, “because Russia is a depositary state of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and it takes that responsibility very seriously.”

Russian leaders who are worried about the national interest should know that, in the recent past, Russia, like the U.S., has on occasion and in its self-interest supported the IAEA by providing it third-party information. In the early 1990s, for example, Russia disclosed information about nuclear weapons-related activities by the former Apartheid regime in South Africa. In 2002 Russia gave the IAEA information which corroborated its concern that allegations embraced by the United States, that Iraq had restarted its former nuclear weapons program, were not true.

The IAEA safeguards system evolves in an iterative process at both policy and technical levels. Until recently this has happened mostly outside the public domain. With more information sources at play, in the future safeguards judgments will on margin become more complex than in the days when inspectors counted declared quantities of materials, meaning that governments will have more penetrating questions about how safeguards will be implemented. In answering those questions, both policy and technical actors have joint responsibility to assure that all elements of the safeguards system be as objective as possible.   

This address was given at the 2014 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference.