Building a nuclear weapons is like running the marathon; if you can enrich to 5% you already mastered 70% of the weaponization process. If you can enrich to 20% you mastered 90% of the process to build a nuclear bomb. It would only seem natural then that there is a sound safeguard system in place that ensures that nuclear material is not diverted from peaceful uses. Even though this system does exist, it is not as safe and sound as we might expect.
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) speaks of the “inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.” To restrain the diversion of fissile materials (including uranium and plutonium) into military purposes the Treaty established a safeguards system under the responsibility of the IAEA. Safeguards can be seen as a system that to ensure that certain types of nuclear material are not diverted from their peaceful use. It needs to establish that civil uranium or plutonium plants are used only for peaceful purposes and do not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The IAEA’s safeguard system has been more successful than most states had hoped. It proved its effectives when it was able to detect diversion in Iraq and North Korea’s nuclear programs in the 90s. However, these successes also underlined the weakness of the safeguard system. The IAEA is limited in comprehensive safeguards agreements to the declarations made by State’s about their nuclear material and activities. The Agency can thus only investigate whether the declaration matches their findings. As a result, they can verify the correctness of the declaration but not so much the completeness of it. While Iraq and North Korea and more recently Iran’s accepted safeguards in their declared facilitates, they worked on weaponization in non-declared locations. Since Iraq’s clandestine program was detected a program was established to increase the IAEA’s ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities. The majority of IAEA member states (128) have brought this so called ‘Additional Protocol’ into force, but there are still essential members missing such as Argentina, Brazil and Iran.
It is important to notice that even with an Additional Protocol in place, nuclear safeguards remain difficult and unfortunately nuclear weapons programs may continue to exist. The danger of nuclear weapons proliferation is mainly political and not technical. With the ability to enrich comes great responsibility and it can never be guaranteed that it is only used for peaceful purposes. Caution is not only imperative in the case of Iran, but also in all other countries with enrichment capacities, whether it be the Netherlands or Japan, Brazil or Pakistan. In that sense it is again like a marathon; the last kilometres towards the bomb depends more on character than capacity.
Alinta Geling is a masters student in International Security at Sciences Po Paris. She is a great fan of the disarmament work done by PAX and supports wherever she can. This summer she participated in a course on International Safeguards Policy and Information Analysis in Monterey. The course provided all participants with an in-depth understanding of international safeguards focussing particularly on the role of the IAEA in safeguard inspection, material accounting and surveillance.