“No system of safeguards that can be devised will of itself provide an effective guarantee against the production of atomic weapons by a nation bent on aggression.” — Harry S Truman
The quote above echoes apprehensions expressed by many disarmament advocates since the dawn of the atomic age that inadequate application of nuclear safeguards remains unable to stop nuclear weapons proliferation or the motivation to build them. Time has proved that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards could not stop North Korea and other countries from developing nuclear weapons. There are nine countries that possess nuclear weapons today.
The widespread use of fissile material constitutes grave proliferation risks. The dangers of diversion or theft of fissile materials are very high at three different stages of the nuclear fuel cycle: uranium enrichment process, reprocessing of spent nuclear fuels and mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) fabrication in reactor fuel assemblies. MOX plants pose added security risks because of the presence of separated plutonium oxide that can be used to build weapons.
Nuclear facilities in the states that signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapon states are of primary concern to the IAEA’s safeguards. The general view is that the IAEA’s safeguards system provides effective assurances against the use of atomic energy for military purposes. However, because of the IAEA’s inability to ensure peaceful use commitments by states, the views expressed by Truman are more believable.
It is argued that the IAEA’s safeguards can detect any clandestine removal of a ‘significant quantity’ (SQ) of fissile material and prevent its use for nuclear explosive devices. Depending on the type of nuclear materials, the IAEA guidelines adjust the amount that qualifies as an SQ. A number of techniques — detectors, surveillance cameras and environmental samples — are used to obtain information about nuclear materials or undeclared operations of the facilities. However, more than five and a half decades after its establishment, the IAEA has not been able to fulfil its responsibilities even at existing nuclear fuel-cycle facilities effectively. IAEA officials have also acknowledged that they cannot meet the goal of above 90 percent probability of detecting the diversion of fissile materials. So the IAEA has lowered the detection standards, aka the Accountancy Verification Goal (AVG), which can easily be satisfied by current safeguards.
Nuclear safeguards are measures to verify compliance with international obligations, but there have been a number of shortcomings underlying the process, specifically, with regards to the IAEA’s ability to monitor facilities not formally declared by states parties. This has provided potential proliferators with the latitude to continue proliferation at undeclared facilities. Second, countries are allowed to undertake peaceful nuclear activities under the NPT on a good-faith basis. However, because of the voluntary nature of IAEA safeguards, state parties can withdraw from the NPT after having success to all technologies necessary for producing a bomb.
Third, due to limited resources in the past, the IAEA has been applying its verification resources on a proportional basis. Experts believe that this has led the agency to spend most of the resources in countries like Canada, with large nuclear industries, while distracting attention from many other potential proliferators.
In 1991, it was revealed that the Iraqi regime was able to develop an extensive nuclear weapons programme, even after ratifying the NPT in 1969. And the IAEA safeguards have remained unable to detect such large-scale proliferation. This led to changes in the IAEA’s safeguards system, and now the agency is theoretically able to inspect all nuclear and nuclear-related facilities of states parties. But still the safeguards approach adopted by the IAEA is applicable only to states and does not cover proliferation activities by non-state actors.
In addition to the safeguards system, 115 countries that are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty have also signed additional protocols (AP). The IAEA adopted this AP system after the discovery of nuclear-related sites in Iraq. Under the AP system, IAEA inspectors can ask a country for complete information and access to the nuclear fuel cycle, which was earlier excluded from safeguards agreements. However, membership of the IAEA is not universal — the agency has 159 member states, just 82 percent of the current UN membership of 193.
The most logical step to combat nuclear terrorism is the total phase-out of civilian commerce in HEU. It is a well-known fact that HEU is not needed for the generation of civilian nuclear power and is only used as fuel for some research reactors and critical assemblies. And in most of these research reactors, low-enriched uranium can be substituted for HEU.
A comprehensive reactor conversion process generally involves three major steps, starting with the development of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel followed by the conversion of the HEU-fuelled reactor to use the new LEU fuel. In the end, all fresh and spent HEU from the research reactor and associated facilities is completely removed.
There are few technical barriers to converting from the use of HEU to the use of LEU fuel in civilian reactor operations. The replacement of HEU by LEU fuel typically results in a five to 10 percent decrease in neutron flux, but through certain fuel assembly readjustments and core configuration, many research reactors have successfully been converted.
The global community must work together to develop HEU transparency guidelines like those that exist for plutonium used in civilian facilities. Lack of transparency surrounding activities involving HEU minimisation makes it extremely difficult to understand the scope of the problem. Another additional measure to bolster nuclear security could be to encourage voluntary declarations of HEU holdings.
Finally, countries must review stockpile requirements for HEU fuel used in naval reactors that power submarines and aircraft carriers. This issue has significant implications for the prospects of HEU elimination because HEU use in naval reactors has been kept out of the ‘elimination debate’. Various operational priorities are keeping the US and Russia from exploring conversion to LEU, and massive stocks of HEU remain in reserve for future naval use. Although the US is reviewing its plans for the next generation of nuclear submarines, there is a reluctance to consider LEU-fuelled reactors for new boats.
Despite a number of formidable technical and political challenges to HEU removal, the fact is that the less HEU exists in civilian research reactors, the less opportunity there is for terrorists to steal the material. Compared to other non-proliferation initiatives seeking to place limits on fuel cycle technology development, HEU elimination is non-discriminatory in nature because it applies to both nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states.
This added virtue offers a common ground for fostering broad cooperation in reducing a very real threat to international security.
The writer is a US-based nuclear security analyst and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org