When the IAEA’s 35 governors arrived at the VIC last Monday for their quarterly June meeting, the stack of documents they picked up outside Boardroom C included the 2012 version of the Safeguards Implementation Report (SIR).

The distribution to the board of the annual SIR happens every mid-year. This report–like every other document distributed by the IAEA secretariat for the occasion–is classified “for official use only” and, during the ensuing meeting, it is routinely taken note of by board members and is then tucked away for posterity and for use by nuclear materials accountants as a reference.

Last week things were a little different.  Within a day after the board meeting began, the SIR was leaked to wire reporters at the IAEA and two accounts of its contents then appeared from Bloomberg and Reuters, on June 5 and June 7, respectively.

Both articles zeroed in on an unusually fussy accounting in this year’s report concerning delays in states’ response to IAEA requests for information, since the report spelled out that :

"For 71 States (including many of the 73 States [with comprehensive safeguards agreements and additional protocols]) the Agency was not able to get timely responses to Agency requests for, or clarification of, safeguards relevant information."

The wire accounts of this fact found their way onto Twitter, and the tweets which were broadcast focused even more closely than the original articles did on a comparison between the IAEA’s safeguards activity in Iran and everywhere else. A little knowledge can be dangerous (or at least misleading) and so among the tweets circulating last week were these:

  • IAEA: Nearly half of nations not complying with demands
  • IAEA spent 1,356 calendar days in Iran last year. They spent 180 calendar days in France, Europe’s biggest nuclear power
  • 11% of  2012 inspections were of Iran alone yet 45% of IAEA members were delinquent too. This is bias. Statistics don’t lie.
  • 159 member countries consistently responded late to IAEA requests. Iran wasn’t late on any of the reports it’s bound to file, the IAEA said
  • The US wants to attack Iran while [Iran] strictly adheres to the IAEA, while [the US] overlooks the violations and refusals

Compliance vs Performance Evaluation

The SIR has two basic components. The first is an annual safeguards “statement” which, following the June board meeting, is posted on the IAEA website. It presents the IAEA’s safeguards conclusions, drawn from all safeguards-relevant information available to the IAEA Secretariat, including state reports and notifications, provided according to safeguards agreement provisions, and the results from IAEA verification of states’ declarations.

How credible and reliable the IAEA’s conclusions are depends on how well states meet their obligations to report and notify (including timeliness) and also on how well the secretariat verifies (which depends in turn on states’ cooperation). So the second part of the SIR reports on the performance evaluation of this safeguards implementation, both by states and by the IAEA Department of Safeguards, and chiefly its three operations divisions responsible for safeguards implementation in the states. For the system to work, both states and the secretariat have to do what they are supposed to do.

The compliance part of the SIR is fairly cut and dried. The performance evaluation part however has been evolving over the years and is still evolving, depending in part on who is writing the report and what guidance they get. This year is no exception, hence the attention in the 2012 document to the matter of timely reporting, which is not equalled in any previous annual SIR reports I’ve seen.

Most of the discussion in cyberspace the last week conflated the difference between compliance and performance evaluation, and on Friday, I unintentionally contributed to the same result in remarks I made to the reporter who wrote the Reuters piece.

Hibbs said he did not believe it was a question of grave violations of IAEA safeguards rules, or that any of these [71 delinquent] countries was engaging in covert nuclear activity with potential military intentions. “But states are always trying to see what they can get away with” in carrying out nuclear-related activities without intrusive inspections and added bureaucracy.

The bit in quote marks was very misleading and insufficiently contextualized on my part, albeit informed by my fresh reading of this statement, also found in the 2012 report:

  • Safeguards effectiveness was affected in several States that did not provide, for example, design information, in accordance with Code 3.1 of their Subsidiary Arrangements General Part, or advance notification of nuclear material receipts and transfers

In general it can be said with authority (and fully backed up by my historical files) that quite a  number of states–and, importantly, mostly states with significant nuclear programs–have at critical times resisted efforts of the IAEA to require that they provide more information and access.  That has been especially the case related to the negotiation and implementation of the Additional Protocol, where member states and the IAEA have since 1997 worked through a tough learning curve about how to obtain a broader conclusion about states’ nuclear activities, including legacy and historical activities.

Does this record show that states as a matter of course have resisted taking on additional obligations to the IAEA? Yes. But does this resistance imply that these same states were cheating on their current safeguards obligations? No.

Of the 71 countries which in 2012 frequently failed to report on time–let’s say states which were delinquent on more than a quarter of their reports–nearly all are developing countries with very few declared nuclear activities. None are states with advanced nuclear fuel cycles. A few developed states–including Brazil, China, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Mexico, Poland, and Portugal–missed some reporting deadlines. Uruguay and Monaco missed a lot of them.

I wouldn’t conclude on this basis that any of these states are cheating. I would conclude that the IAEA has some outreach to do in a lot of states that are having difficulty meeting their obligations because they don’t understand them, don’t prioritize them, or don’t have enough resources.

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk