As the November negotiating deadline to reach a final agreement over Iranian uranium enrichment and plutonium production approaches, it’s not too soon to consider just how well the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can safeguard any agreement that might be reached. The question is even more important given recent statements senior Saudi figures have made that whatever rights Iran secures to enrich uranium in current negotiations, Saudi Arabia will demand for itself. There is also the question of commercial reprocessing spent fuel and enriching uranium in Japan and South Korean aspirations as well as Brazil’s ongoing uranium enrichment program.
All of these countries have forsworn acquiring nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). How well will the IAEA be able to safeguard these activities against possible military diversions?
Late last month at the IAEA’s international safeguards symposium, I presented the attached paper, “Is the IAEA’s Safeguards Strategic Plan Sufficient?” It answers this question with a simple no. This was hardly what people at the symposium wanted to hear. But privately, more than a few confided the paper’s message was on point and overdue.
One of the practical recommendations I and my coauthor, Victor Gilinsky, make in the paper is that the IAEA needs to distinguish what it can safeguard and what it can only monitor. Monitoring would only allow the IAEA to learn of diversions after they occur whereas safeguarding would detect possible military diversions early enough to allow outside authorities to intervene in time to prevent any bombs from being built. By this standard, the IAEA would have to admit that it could not safeguard plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment plants. It would be necessary and desirable for the IAEA to continue to inspect them, but the Agency could not assure that it could provide timely detection of possible military diversions at such plants.
That this modest proposal caused a stir at the symposium is itself telling.
Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski
IAEA safeguards have much improved since their inception and the Safeguards Department is commendably continually improving its technical capabilities and planning to make full use of its statutory authority. The question remains: Will this be enough to keep countries from exploiting nuclear power programs to develop nuclear weapons, or to be in a position to do so rapidly should they so decide?
That question becomes much more relevant if worldwide use of nuclear power expands significantly. It isn’t at all clear that this will happen. But the IAEA is doing everything it can to encourage such a development—in furtherance of its statutory mandate to “accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity.” It should, therefore, also do its best to develop the means to protect such expanded nuclear energy use from spilling over into military applications. This, however, requires facing
up to some awkward truths.
Of most concern are the fuel plants that separate fuels that can make nuclear weapons usable plutonium and uranium, such as reprocessing plants that separate plutonium or enrichment plants producing highly enriched uranium, or can easily be used to produce such material. Countries possessing such facilities are within arm’s reach of nuclear weapons—which presents the IAEA with a dilemma. The Agency’s Safeguards Mission Statement says that the agency’s role “is to deter the proliferation of nuclear weapons by detecting early the misuse of nuclear material or technology.” But if a country has ready access to nuclear explosives it is impracticable to design a system for early detection. And if one cannot count on early detection, what happens to the deterrence that is the raison être for the safeguards system?
There does not appear to be any technological fix that would allow an escape from this dilemma. The shift in enrichment technology to centrifuges makes it much easier to realign a plant to produce HEU than with gaseous diffusion systems. As to reprocessing, we know, of course, that there are reprocessing enthusiasts who claim one or another form of advanced reprocessing is “proliferation resistant.” But the US Department of Energy, even in supporting advanced reprocessing research, made it clear that while it had various advantages, “proliferation resistance” against military diversions by states was not one of them. A major 2006 DOE document stated that advanced reprocessing systems could help prevent nuclear terrorist from making bombs from the fuel these systems recycled but that “There is no technology ‘silver bullet’ that can be built into an enrichment plant or reprocessing plant that can prevent a country from diverting these
commercial fuel cycle facilities to non-peaceful use.”
* Paper presented at the IAEA Symposium on International Safeguards, “Linking Strategy, Implementation and People,”
held in Vienna, Austria, October 22, 2014.
To read the full occasional paper click here.