Skip to main content

Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Security: Whither the IAEA?

Richard Weitz

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.

Following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the vigorous Western military action in response against international terrorists and their state sponsors, Libya sought to improve its relations with Western governments in hopes of ending the sanctions imposed during previous decades following evidence that it had supported terrorism. Among other steps, the Libyan government acknowledged responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. In December 2003, Libyan President Muammar el-Qaddafi renounced his country’s WMD programs and invited international inspectors to come to Libya to verify his country’s compliance with its new commitments.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and the IAEA, as well as other international organizations, then undertook a major effort to help Libya eliminate its nuclear weapons and other WMD programs, as well as its long-range ballistic missiles. The agency’s main contribution to this endeavor was to verify the accuracy of Libya’s new declarations of its past nuclear activities. In July 2006, the IAEA and the US National Nuclear Security Administration completed the removal of all highly enriched uranium from Libya.

The Libyan experience demonstrated that collective pressure and sanctions can help induce a state violating its NPT obligations to alter its policies so as to come into compliance. Unfortunately, the Libyan case has been a rare success and, given Qaddafi’s current fate, unlikely to be repeated.

When its initial illicit nuclear activities were detected, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) threatened to withdraw from the NPT. In response, the United States intervened and negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under this accord, Pyongyang pledged to end its nuclear weapons program, which was based on the diversion of plutonium from its main reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, in return for political and economic concessions, including improved relations with the United States and the construction of two light-water nuclear power reactors that were deemed less vulnerable for diversion to nuclear weapons use.

But in 2002, the Agreed Framework collapsed when North Korea, citing the failure of the other parties to provide it with adequate energy assistance, seemingly acknowledged US government claims that it was conducting an undeclared uranium enrichment program. Pyongyang then expelled its IAEA inspectors on December 27th and announced its withdrawal from the NPT on January 10th. The agency responded to this unprecedented move by referring the North Korean case to the UN Security Council for action.

Chinese opposition prevented the Security Council from adopting coercive measures against the DPRK at this time. Instead, China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States began the “Six Party Talks” on Korea’s denuclearization. The four interconnected objectives of the talks are eliminating nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula; normalizing relations between the DPRK and all the other parties; securing the economic development and regional integration of North Korea; and achieving an enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the broader East Asian region.

The parties have reached several agreements that have fallen apart as soon as they tried to implement them. Outside events, especially the Iraq War and more recently North Korea’s contested dynastic succession, have repeatedly disrupted possible agreements. It is widely assumed that the current North Korean regime will never surrender its nuclear arsenal, especially after recent events in Libya have shown the vulnerability of countries without WMD to Western attack. Even worse, DPRK leaders believe they can provoke South Korea by sinking its ships and shelling its civilians while relying on their nuclear arsenal to deter southern military retaliation.

The IAEA has thus far played a minimal role in the North Korean denuclearization process, which has been pursued primarily through direct negotiations between China, North Korea, and the United States. The agency has been prepared to help verify an agreement—but has no independent means to secure one.

The IAEA’s efforts regarding Iran have also suffered from inadequate authority in the face of political defiance by the offending state.

The Iranian government insists on its “inalienable” right (the wording comes from Article IV of the NPT) to develop all elements of the nuclear full cycle, including the capacity to enrich uranium, which could provide the basis for manufacturing nuclear weapons. Although Iranian officials insist their nuclear program has entirely peaceful aims, experts suspect that Tehran is seeking the capacity to develop nuclear weapons. The Iranian government has defiantly ignored IAEA protests and various Security Council sanctions in its dogged pursuit of nuclear technology. Observers naturally wonder why Tehran would take such troubles merely to boost its civil energy capabilities.

According to the IAEA and other sources, Iran’s nuclear program continues to make progress despite international sanctions, cyber attacks, and other impediments. Iran continues to enrich increasing quantities of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at its Natanz fuel-enrichment plant and to construct a IR-40 heavy water nuclear research reactor at Arak despite several Security Council resolutions instructing Tehran to halt such activities. Iran has already manufactured sufficient LEU, about four thousand kilograms, to make a nuclear weapon or two if the LEU were enriched further to weapons grade.

Despite Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to provide the IAEA with the information confirming the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program, Tehran has ignored agency requests to clarify information indicating the Iranians’ previously conducted studies on how to make a nuclear warhead and a re-entry vehicle capable of being launched on a long-range ballistic missile. Iranians have repeatedly denied agency requests for access to essential data, sites, and individuals that might clarify these activities.

The latest IAEA report indicates that the agency has no evidence of significant diversions of nuclear materials or technologies from Iran’s sixteen safeguarded nuclear facilities. But if the Iranians make a nuclear weapon, they will do so not at Natanz, Bushehr, or at other declared facilities under agency supervision. Instead, they will design and build an atomic bomb at some clandestine facility, such as the one exposed at Qom, the remote and deeply buried enrichment complex that is shielded from foreign surveillance satellites and possible air strikes.

In September 2007, Israeli warplanes attacked a suspected nuclear site at al-Kibar in northeastern Syria. The IAEA had totally missed Syria’s covert nuclear weapons program. It knew that the Syrian government had unsuccessfully tried to obtain nuclear reactors from Argentina, Russia, and other countries. However, nuclear nonproliferation experts at the agency and elsewhere believed that Damascus lacked sufficient technical resources to conduct a nuclear weapons program. North Korean assistance likely helped Syria overcome these barriers.

Like all nonnuclear weapons states, the Syrian government must inform the IAEA about any nuclear activities and apply safeguards to any nuclear reactors operating on its territory, whether they function under civilian or military control. The Syrians declared one small research reactor located near Damascus to the IAEA, and has permitted recurring agency inspections of its operations. Shortly after the Israeli attack, the IAEA issued a statement confirming that the agency “has no information about any undeclared nuclear facility in Syria.” The Syrian government has declined to answer many questions about the affair or allow the agency to conduct extensive on-site investigations at the destroyed site or at several other locations suspected of harboring undeclared nuclear activities. Syria’s failure to conclude an Additional Protocol with the IAEA has meant that the agency has lacked adequate powers to deal with Syria’s covert nuclear program, whose existence it only recently acknowledged.

Earlier this year, the US Institute for Science and International Security released satellite photos identifying new Syrian nuclear sites unknown to the IAEA. These revelations further confirm that Syria’s nuclear program has made more progress than originally thought. One benefit from the possible overthrow of the current Syrian regime is that it might finally expose adequate information to resolve the nuclear mystery.

Along with Israel, India and Pakistan have refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or relinquish their nuclear weapons, although they have placed only some of their nonmilitary nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. Indian officials claim that the NPT is discriminatory because it permits a few states to retain nuclear weapons while denying other countries the same privilege. These officials claim that they would support a universal agreement that denies any country the possession of nuclear weapons. Pakistani officials refuse to sign the treaty unless it recognizes Pakistan as a nuclear weapons state or unless India also joins.

Pakistan is undertaking a comprehensive program to expand the quantity and improve the quality of its nuclear arsenal. In particular, it is increasing the capacity to produce fissile material (enriched uranium and plutonium separated from used reactor fuel) for nuclear weapons. Concerns have arisen that some of the IAEA technical support programs in Pakistan have actually aided its weapons program. For two decades, Pakistan has received millions of dollars of IAEA help for operational upgrades and control systems for its safeguarded reactors at the same time as it was building and operating reactors of the same design outside safeguards for its military program.

Fears persist that terrorists, aided by sympathizers inside Pakistan’s nuclear weapons complex, will gain control of some of Pakistan’s weapons or various nuclear materials and technologies. The world has yet to recover from the damage inflicted by A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, who established the most extensive black market in nuclear materials and technologies ever detected. Given the tense relations between India and Pakistan, a nuclear war between these countries also remains a possibility, especially as long as some Pakistanis support terrorist strikes against India as a means, like Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, to compensate for India’s superior conventional military power.

The IAEA is the lead global agency responsible for nuclear safety, security, and safeguards, but strengthening its authority in these areas has always been difficult since countries vigorously defend their nuclear autonomy. In particular, many developing countries fear that developed members’ concern about nuclear weapons proliferation leads them to demand excessive safety and security requirements for the transfer of any peaceful nuclear technologies.

Despite its problems, the IAEA remains a valuable institution that cannot easily be replaced but can be made more effective. For example, its ability to inspect countries’ nuclear facilities and monitor their nuclear activities has provided the international community with extensive information about their nuclear programs that may not be available through other intelligence sources. Still, as events in North Korea and Iran show, the IAEA alone can do little to prevent a determined state’s march toward the acquisition of the capabilities needed to make an atomic bomb. And the tragedy in Japan has, like the earlier disaster at Chernobyl, exposed weaknesses in international nuclear safety practices.

With respect to nuclear nonproliferation, the international community needs to close the NPT loophole exploited by North Korea. When Pyongyang was caught violating the treaty, it simply announced its withdrawal. It was never directly penalized for its treaty cheating or subsequent withdrawal, though it was later sanctioned after it tested a nuclear bomb and launched long-range missiles. Automatic penalties or an obligation to convene emergency meetings of the Security Council to deliberate on possible sanctions or other responses are needed for countries that withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty while exploiting nuclear assistance they received within the treaty framework to develop nuclear weapons.

All countries should accede to the IAEA Additional Protocol. The protocol is a voluntary supplement to the traditional Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, which covers only nuclear facilities declared to the IAEA by the host government. In contrast, the Additional Protocol, by helping the agency understand all the nuclear-related activities of a country, increases the likelihood that the agency can detect undeclared nuclear material and activities. A state should be obliged to adopt the Additional Protocol before it can purchase technology through the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which includes most countries with advanced nuclear industries.

In the area of nuclear safety, individual member countries are currently responsible for the safety of their nuclear activities, although they can draw on IAEA expertise and other assets. In the case of an accident, the agency can offer resources, but the affected governments can decide whether to use these assets. Although many agency-supported nuclear safety conventions exist, membership in them is typically voluntary. Some of their provisions are also outdated. The IAEA has responsibility “to provide authoritative and validated information as quickly as possible,” but must rely on whatever data the member countries provide. In the case of Fukushima, initial IAEA comments were vague and sometimes contradictory because, while the agency received information from a variety of official Japanese sources, these were imperfectly filtered through the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. At times, the agency (unhelpfully) simply reprinted official Japanese government statements—which initially downplayed the disaster—on its website. Meanwhile, US regulators were publicly warning of much darker scenarios. Pressed by the media for authoritative assessments, Yukiya Amano, IAEA director general, had to fly to Tokyo to induce the authorities to provide him with more data more rapidly. The agency should be allowed to provide its own independent analysis of the possible consequences of such a crisis.

The April 2011 meeting of the states party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), a legally binding international agreement to promote nuclear safety, has already initiated international consultations regarding the Japanese nuclear accident. The convention, adopted in 1994 after the demise of the USSR eliminated the Soviet veto to a nuclear safety convention, lacks a formal inspections or sanctions regime. It does oblige members to submit reports regarding the safety of their civil nuclear installations for review by their peers at meetings that occur every three years. But the peer reviews, generally not made public (which would allow for independent assessments), appear not to have worked well in the case of Fukushima. These reactors were designed, sited, and built decades before the CNS, though convention review meetings may have influenced upgrades of certain reactor systems. Beyond peer pressure, moreover, the CNS does not impose penalties for faulty reactors or their host countries. And the review does not require on-site safety inspections. Most seriously, there is no means to force countries to close unsafe nuclear facilities or prevent them from building them.

Considering how catastrophes on the scale of Chernobyl and Fukushima can inflict transnational, even global, damage to plant and animal life, human health, worldwide commerce, and the environment, some experts have called for establishing IAEA mandatory nuclear safety requirements that would include compulsory inspections. Others have even proposed creating an entirely new international safety body. The latter process would be excessively complicated, time-consuming, and costly, although supplementary bilateral, regional, and limited multilateral initiatives could prove helpful, such as those recently launched by Japan and the G-8. Proposals to create an ASIATOM modeled after EURATOM and to establish nuclear safety equipment sharing arrangements and international registers of nuclear safety specialists should be considered.

Nonetheless, the Japanese tragedy makes clear that both the IAEA’s role in nuclear safety and its safety standards need strengthening. General safety obligations in the CNS and other relevant instruments should be made more precise and mandatory. Countries that receive technical assistance from the agency, such as Iran, should be required to join the CNS. The nuclear energy community also should broaden safety and security standards to account for the possibility of several simultaneous disasters affecting multiple nuclear reactors—both natural, as with the March 11th earthquake-tsunami combination that devastated Japan, and with a deliberate manmade element, such as a terrorist attack that exploits an earthquake, or a combined cyber and physical assault on one or more nuclear reactors. It would be reasonable to require that the member governments provide more information about nuclear accidents to the agency, and on a more timely basis. The IAEA also needs a dedicated group of nuclear experts that it can mobilize and dispatch in emergencies to provide on-site analysis to complement that of the national authorities. The expanding global use of nuclear energy will require expanding the IAEA’s staff and increasing its funding to ensure it can manage its existing and new responsibilities. The global nuclear industry might voluntarily help defray some of these costs as a prudent investment since a nuclear accident anywhere can affect public confidence and industry operations everywhere.

On paper, the IAEA has more authority to limit the nuclear proliferation than it does to promote nuclear safety. In practice, the main barrier against the spread of nuclear weapons remains the military power of the United States and other countries. Japan, South Korea, and other US allies considered, but then decided against, pursuing nuclear weapons after Washington offered them extended security guarantees while threatening to revoke them if the shielded states sought independent nuclear deterrents. Meanwhile, US, British, Israeli, and other military actions destroyed Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear weapons programs before they reached fruition and helped undermine Libya’s nuclear weapons aspirations. Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, and other states decided against seeking nuclear weapons, but for reasons unrelated to the IAEA. Only the absence of good military options against North Korea and Iran allows these states to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities regardless of agency actions. Conversely, the IAEA has much greater opportunities to contribute to the safety of civilian nuclear programs, but needs major restructuring to realize its potential.

Related Articles

Gesta Democrática en Hong Kong

Jaime Daremblum

De nuevo, los estudiantes son la vanguardia de una gesta por la libertad y la democracia. Hong Kong, la excolonia británica, una próspera zona autó...

Continue Reading

Time for China to Rule Hong Kong Wisely

John Lee

Last weekend, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi used the august platform of the UN General Assembly to urge countries to treat each other and their s...

Continue Reading

News Highlights (September 20-26)

Financial Corruption & Autocracy Initiative

News highlights and links on the topic of financial corruption and autocracy....

Continue Reading