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Global Nuclear Watchdog Has Its Limitations

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The NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index By Jamshed Baruah
IDN-InDepth NewsReport

VIENNA (IDN) - Global use of nuclear power will continue to grow in the coming decades, although at a slower pace than previously projected, says Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and assures that the Agency's assistance to newcomer countries, especially those which are most advanced on the road to having operational reactors, will remain a high priority.

The Fukushima atomic power plant accident in Japan in March 2011 had a "significant impact on the Agency's work and we will be dealing with its consequences for years to come," he told diplomats. But the IAEA "intends to play its part in restoring confidence in the safety of nuclear power by helping to ensure that nuclear safety is more robust after Fukushima than before."

Amano recalled that, on taking office two years ago, he had pledged "unwavering commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and stressed that all safeguards agreements and other relevant obligations must be implemented in full." In the meantime, he noted, the number of additional protocols in force had risen steadily, a positive trend which he hoped would continue.

IAEA Director General's key priority in 2012 will be "to try to make progress towards restoring international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme." He also emphasized that making the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology available to developing countries would remain high on the Agency's agenda. During his travels, he recalled, he had seen at first-hand "how much the Agency's assistance matters to the thousands of people who benefit from our food, water or health projects."

Demands for the Agency's services in all areas continued to increase. Amano said he counted upon Member States to ensure that IAEA has the resources needed to do the job the Member States expect.

These remarks made in Vienna on January 19, 2012 and similar statements elsewhere make people assume there is a comprehensive global system for managing nuclear materials from cradle to grave and that the IAEA is responsible for administering the system. But this does not correspond to reality, says a new report.

"Although the IAEA, through its safeguards system, has a crucial role in verifying that nuclear materials are not diverted from peaceful use to nuclear weapons, its role in ensuring the security of nuclear materials is limited, by both its mandate and its budget," asserts the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Nuclear Materials Security Index.

The IAEA's principal objective, as established in its founding statute of 1956, is to "accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health, and prosperity throughout the world."

The IAEA was also charged with responsibility, among other things, for administering a safeguards system for civilian facilities to detect whether civilian nuclear materials have been diverted for military purposes.

"Safeguards, however, are not – nor have they ever been – designed to provide physical security measures for the 'safeguarded' facilities. IAEA safeguards inspections are designed for the specific purpose of detecting – after the fact – whether material is missing from a facility or whether nuclear material has not been declared," says the report published in January 2012.

"They also help determine whether the inspected state may have diverted the material to a weapons program. Such inspections do not prevent material from being stolen. In the 2008 'Report of the Commission of Eminent Persons on the Future of the Agency,' the commission states, 'No program exists in which safeguards inspectors systematically report any security weaknesses they may observe'," the report points out.

The NTI Index assesses the contribution of 32 states with one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials toward improved global nuclear materials security conditions, using five categories: (a) Quantities and Sites, (b) Security and Control Measures, (c) Global Norms, (d) Domestic Commitments and Capacity, and (e) Societal Factors. An additional 144 states, with less than one kilogram of weapons-usable nuclear materials or none at all, are assessed on the last three of these categories. The Index includes three elements:

The Index points out that safeguards are not applied at all civilian sites that have weapons-usable nuclear materials, because nuclear-weapon states – where the majority of the world's highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium are located – are not subject to IAEA "comprehensive" safeguards (that is, safeguards applied at all facilities in a state).

Nuclear-weapon states have in fact "voluntary offer" safeguards agreements, under which they may designate facilities as being eligible for IAEA safeguards. "Although the United States and United Kingdom have designated all civilian facilities, the other nuclear-weapon states have designated only some facilities," notes the Index.

"Because of resource constraints, however, the IAEA chooses to inspect only a small proportion of the facilities that are eligible for inspection in the nuclear-weapon states. In addition, all UK and French facilities, including plutonium-reprocessing plants, are inspected by the European safeguards authority, Euratom," the report adds.

Beyond safeguards inspections, the IAEA provides a number of important services to help states strengthen their nuclear security to combat the risk of nuclear terrorism. However, use of these services, according to the Index, is strictly voluntary and is not binding, and both states and the IAEA still see nuclear security as primarily a matter of state responsibility.

The report further points out that the IAEA develops and disseminates guidelines and procedures for securing nuclear and radiological materials through various publications, advisory services, training courses, seminars, workshops, and conferences.

However, these services are primarily funded through extra-budgetary funding (that is, donations) and are not yet part of the IAEA's regular budget. The overall nuclear security budget of the agency is insufficient to meet the challenge of the global task of materials security.

"In sum, although it is the closest thing the world has to a global nuclear watchdog, the IAEA does not have the authority or resources to develop a comprehensive picture of the status of weapons-usable nuclear materials around the world," avers the report.

All nuclear-armed states must therefore achieve significant additional progress on nuclear disarmament before they will be prepared to subject all weapons-usable materials – including those in nuclear-weapons components and at military sites – to some form of oversight.

"In the interim, however, these states have much work to do to individually and collectively ensure that every nuclear weapon and every cache of highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium is protected by security measures that can reliably defeat the threat that terrorists and criminals can pose," concludes the report. [IDN-InDepthNews - January 25, 2012]

Image: The NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index | Credit: NTI

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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