No safeguards for Australia's uranium exports

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office claims that nuclear safeguards "provide assurances that exported uranium and its derivatives cannot benefit the development of nuclear weapons". In fact, the safeguards system is flawed in many respects, and it cannot provide such assurances.

The main component of nuclear safeguards is the monitoring and inspection regime operated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory states are expected to bring all nuclear material and activities under IAEA safeguards. There is an important exception to this rule however: the five "declared" nuclear weapons states — the US, Russia, Britain, France and China — are not required to put any nuclear facilities under safeguards, though they may do so on a voluntary basis.

All but three states — Israel, India and Pakistan — are NPT signatories. North Korea has effectively withdrawn from the NPT, although there are ongoing efforts to bring it back within the NPT "tent" through the protracted six-party talks.

IAEA safeguards involve periodical inspections of nuclear facilities and nuclear materials accounting to determine whether the amount of nuclear material going through the fuel cycle matches the country's records. In theory, the system is simple. In practice, IAEA safeguards have proven to be technically complex and politically contentious.

Five states have been reported to the UN Security Council for non-compliance with their safeguards agreements: Iraq in 1991, Romania in 1992, North Korea in 1993, Libya in 2004, and Iran in 2006. Other countries have carried out weapons-related research projects in violation of their NPT agreement, or have failed to carry out reporting requirements, without the matter being referred to the Security Council: they include South Korea, Taiwan, the former Yugoslavia and Egypt.

The five "declared" weapons' states have NPT obligations to pursue disarmament. While none have been reported to the UN Security Council, they are arguably all in breach of their NPT commitments given their unwillingness to seriously pursue disarmament. As IAEA director general Mohamed El Baradei noted in a February 2004 speech: "We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security — indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use."

IAEA budget constraints

The IAEA lacks the resources to effectively carry out its safeguards role. For more than 15 years, the IAEA's verification program operated under conditions of zero real growth. Then, in 2004, the budget was increased by 12.4%, with a further 3.3% increase in 2005.

In October, El Baradei stressed the seriousness of the funding problem in a speech to an international safeguards symposium in Vienna. He said: "Financial resources are another key issue. Our budget is only $130 million; that's the budget with which we're supposed to verify the nuclear activities of the entire world. Reportedly some $1 billion was spent by the Iraq Survey Group after the war in that country. Our budget … is comparable with the budget of the police department in Vienna. So we don't have the required resources in many ways to be independent, to buy our own satellite monitoring imagery, or crucial instrumentation for our inspections. We still do not have our laboratories here in Vienna equipped for state-of-the-art analysis of environmental samples."

The IAEA oversees approximately 900 nuclear facilities in 71 countries. The problem of inadequate funding is exacerbated by the ever-increasing challenge of safeguards. The volume of nuclear material — and the number of nuclear facilities — requiring safeguarding increases steadily and the expanded inspection rights provided by "additional protocols" further stretch the system.

Apart from resource constraints, issues relating to national sovereignty and commercial confidentiality have adversely impacted on safeguards. In a 2004 paper, Harvard University academic Matthew Bunn pointed to the constraints enshrined in the IAEA's basic safeguards template, INFCIRC 153.

"INFCIRC 153 is replete with provisions designed to ensure that safeguards would not be too intrusive. They are to be implemented in a manner designed 'to avoid hampering' technological development, 'to avoid undue interference' in civilian nuclear energy, and 'to reduce to a minimum the possible inconvenience and disturbance to the State'. The IAEA is not to ask for more from the state than 'the minimum amount of information and data consistent with carrying out its responsibilities', and specific upper bounds are placed on the number of person-days of inspection permitted at various types of nuclear facilities."

Untimely detection

Detection of diversion can only be discovered after it has occurred, meaning safeguards can never physically prevent the development of clandestine nuclear programs. IAEA safeguards discourage diversion, but they cannot stop it.

The "detection time" should be shorter than the "conversion time", the latter being the "time required to convert different forms of nuclear material to the components of a nuclear explosive device". Conversion times vary: for metallic plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the time is seven to 10 days; for highly enriched uranium in irradiated fuel, one to three months; and one year for low-enriched uranium.

Facilities using nuclear materials with shorter conversion times ought to be inspected more often. In practice, this objective is compromised as the IAEA does not actually inspect all facilities that are potentially subject to safeguards because of resource constraints, and political and commercial sensitivities.

For example, the federal parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties is currently assessing the merits of uranium exports to China. It has emerged that of the 10 Chinese facilities potentially subject to IAEA safeguards last year, only three were actually inspected. (The application of safeguards to China is the subject of a detailed report released on November 7 by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War. Visit .)

When suspicions arise regarding the possible diversion of nuclear material, the response has proven to be far from "timely". An October 2005 paper by the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that there have been standoffs where unresolved discrepancies in nuclear material accountancy have remained unresolved for years. Iran and North Korea provide two contemporary examples of protracted disputes.

"Material unaccounted for" refers to discrepancies between the "book stock" (the expected measured amount) and the "physical stock" (the actual measured amount) of nuclear materials at a location under safeguards. Such discrepancies are frequent due to the difficulty of precisely measuring amounts of nuclear material.

Discrepancies make it difficult to be confident that nuclear material has not been diverted for military use.

Material unaccounted for is a problem that is possibly unsolvable. In a large plant, even a tiny percentage of the annual through-put of nuclear material may suffice to build one or more weapons without being detected. For example, the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Japan will have the capacity to separate about eight tonnes of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel each year. Diverting 1% of that amount of plutonium would be very difficult for the IAEA to detect against the background of routine accounting discrepancies, yet it would suffice to build at least one nuclear weapon per month.

The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office refuses to reveal any country-specific, or aggregate, information concerning discrepancies involving Australian uranium or its derivatives. Nor has the office explained why it refuses to release this information.

Strengthened safeguards

Prompted by the limitations of traditional safeguards, the IAEA initiated efforts to strengthen the system. The strengthened safeguards program began in 1993 with "Program 93+2". The intention, which proved to be wildly optimistic, was to implement a strengthened safeguards regime in two years.

The model Additional Protocol (AP), introduced in 1997, meant that the IAEA was theoretically able to develop a more inclusive "cradle-to-grave" picture of states' nuclear activities. The improvements included:
•Requiring substantially more information from states regarding their nuclear activities, other relevant sites, imports and exports and material holdings;
•Increased use of environmental sampling, analysis and remote monitoring;
•Allowing IAEA inspectors extended access to any location that is included on an expanded declaration, and to other necessary locations; and
•Additional authority to use the most advanced technologies and intelligence, such as commercial satellite imagery.

As of October, 78 NPT states had negotiated and ratified an AP, but more than 100 NPT states had not done so.

While strengthened safeguards are welcome, serious problems remain. One is that the development of the full suite of nuclear fuel cycle facilities, including sensitive, dual-use enrichment and reprocessing facilities, is enshrined in the NPT as an "inalienable right" of all NPT states.

As El Baradei noted in December 2005: "If a country with a full nuclear fuel cycle decides to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, a nuclear weapon could be only months away. In such cases, we are only as secure as the outbreak of the next major crisis. In today´s environment, this margin of security is simply untenable."

It is impracticable to prevent an NPT state from simply withdrawing from the NPT and pursuing nuclear weapons. North Korea joined the NPT, but withdrew in 2003 and tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006. Iran could be the next country withdrawing from the NPT/IAEA system.

Claims from government bodies, such as the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, that safeguards provide "assurances" that nuclear material will not be diverted should be disregarded.

[Nadia Watson recently completed her undergraduate studies in international relations at LaTrobe University. She spent the previous six months researching the effectiveness of the international nuclear safeguards system.]