Burying the Nuclear Sword

New Roles for the IAEA?

Jorge Morales Pedraza

The world's regime against the spread of nuclear weapons faces serious obstacles. A stronger IAEA could help States overcome them.

Eliminating nuclear weapons -- or at the very least reducing their numbers -- stands among the most important challenges of the 21st century. Progress will require effective verification mechanisms, so that any violation or non-compliance with nuclear arms-control agreements is detected, especially those that could jeopardize international peace and security.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- which already performs valuable verification functions -- could play an even greater role in years ahead to help the world control and bury nuclear weapons. This article offers a group of proposals regarding possible new roles for the IAEA in the field of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. They include steps for the verification of nuclear material from dismantled weapons now in the arsenals of the world's military nuclear powers.

Nuclear Safeguards

The IAEA was constituted in 1957 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, but under strict international verification measures. The initial IAEA safeguards system to ensure the peaceful use of nuclear energy suffered a significant transformation in the 1970s. This transformation was tied to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970.

One objective then was to establish confidence in the verification mechanism. It aimed to detect any deviation or the non-authorized use of safeguarded nuclear materials, equipment, facilities, information and knowledge, including that acquired by any IAEA Member State through the organization, or through the cooperation with other States.

It is important to stress that the former and current IAEA safeguards system -- including the Additional Protocol adopted by the Board of Governors in the 1990s -- does not have the objective of impeding the military use of the nuclear materials, equipment, facilities, information and knowledge. The system works only to detect any violation or non-compliance with the obligations and commitments assumed by States having IAEA safeguard agreements under the NPT. In my view, the IAEA safeguards system is now facing five major obstacles:

  1. The lack of universality of the NPT;

  2. Political decisions of the USA in the field of disarmament, particularly in the field of nuclear disarmament;

  3. The limited application of the IAEA safeguards system among its Member States and NPT State Parties;

  4. The status of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has yet to enter into force; and

  5. The failure of the Conference of Disarmament to conclude negotiations on the Agreement for the Prohibition of the Production of Fissionable Material for Nuclear Weapons and for Other Nuclear Explosive Device (the so-called cut-off agreement) and the adoption of any other measure to move forward nuclear disarmament at the multilateral level.

These obstacles have been evident in practice. The NPT has no internal mechanism to respond to a potential breach of its provisions. This is left to the IAEA Board of Governors. If the Board finds grounds for non- compliance that warrants further action in the interests of international peace and security, it has the obligation to inform the United Nations Security Council.

Since the 1990s, the IAEA has reported three serious cases of non-compliance to the Security Council. They have involved Iraq, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), and Iran. Concerning Iraq, the Security Council approved the application of military and economic sanctions against the country. Concerning Iran, the Security Council adopted economic and political sanctions against the country, and presently is considering further measures. Concerning the DPRK, the Security Council has not adopted political, military or economic sanctions. Six-party talks involving the DPRK, Republic of Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the USA have reached agreements on their road of negotiation, including the shutdown of specified nuclear facilities with the verification of IAEA inspectors.

Reinforcing Nuclear Safeguards

In 1997, the adoption of the Additional Protocol to IAEA safeguards agreements enlarged the scope of nuclear verification. All NPT States have the obligation to sign and ratify the Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA broader inspection rights, including the right to visit facilities beyond those that a State has declared in line with its NPT safeguards agreement.

However, it is important to stress that the strengthened IAEA system does not include so-called challenge inspections -- such as those found in the global verification system for chemical weapons.

In my view, this shortcoming should be remedied as part of work to further strengthen IAEA safeguards for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The work includes a set of confidence-building measures that in my view should be considered by States, including those that already possess nuclear weapons. (See box, 'Ten Steps Toward Trust').

Challenge Inspections

IAEA Member States should consider so-called challenge inspections in any future modification of the safeguards system, in order to expand the scope of the 'special inspection' that the Director General can already request under existing provisions. Such challenge inspections would expand upon measures incorporated in the Additional Protocol, and in my view would reduce considerably the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

NPT non-nuclear-weapon States should use all possible and appropriate international fora, including the IAEA, the United Nations General Assembly and the NPT Review Conferences, to press all nuclear-weapon States (China, France, Russia, UK, USA, Israel, Pakistan, India, as well as North Korea) to accelerate progress toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. They should be pressed to begin, as soon as possible, the implementation, step- by-step, of a set of confidence-building measures, in order to create the necessary conditions to initiate, in the near future, a negotiation process toward the complete elimination, once and for all, of all nuclear weapons and all nuclear production facilities in the possession or under their jurisdiction or control.

Counting Weapons

All nuclear-weapon States should prepare, or update, an inventory of all their nuclear weapons and related production facilities located within their territories, or under their jurisdiction or control.

Controlling Nuclear Materials

All nuclear-weapon States should prepare, or update their inventory of all fissionable materials, as well as other nuclear materials ready to be used for the production of nuclear weapons, before beginning negotiations for the destruction of all nuclear weapons and related production facilities.

Military Stocks

All nuclear-weapon States should place all military stock of fissionable materials, including materials from dismantled nuclear weapons, under IAEA surveillance; this would create the indispensable confidence that theses materials will not revert back to military use. Again, this should be done before beginning negotiations for the destruction of all nuclear weapons and related production facilities.

Global Oversight

All nuclear-weapon States should obtain and maintain accurate information on world sources of uranium and thorium, and bring them under international control before beginning negotiation for the destruction of all nuclear weapons and related production facilities.

Nuclear-Free Road Map

A concrete plan for the future elimination of all nuclear weapons should be elaborated, discussed and, if possible, approved by the NPT Review Conference in 2010, with the purpose of facilitating the destruction of all nuclear weapons and related production facilities.

This multi-step roadmap should be elaborated in line with a set of principles that I have previously defined and whose negotiation and implementation would engage the IAEA.

It is my conviction that it is completely unacceptable for a small group of countries (around 4.6% of the total membership of the UN) to impose upon the rest of the international community its conditions in the field of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. This stands in clear violation of international commitments and obligations, freely assumed in the framework of the NPT.

Future of the NPT

Since the NPT's entry into force, the world has moved forward in efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. It has seen a significant decrease in the number of nuclear weapons, particularly those in the hands of the USA and Russia. The treaty also has helped reduce, in one way or another, the danger of an NPT nuclear- weapon State actually using nuclear weapons in a military conflict. Additionally, the Treaty has made the dissemination of nuclear weapons more difficult internationally.

There is no doubt that the NPT's sustainability -- as well as the lifetime of the world's overall regime against nuclear weapons -- depends upon a number of conditions. They include a brake on the number of countries possessing sensitive nuclear technologies and installations capable of producing nuclear weapons; and a commitment by these countries to allow other NPT States to use these facilities on a commercial basis that is fair and non-discriminatory.

The IAEA can play key roles in regional or multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. In my view, the IAEA should support the establishment of international or regional centers for the enrichment of uranium, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel. These would be on hand for NPT States that require such services. At the same time, the IAEA should support proposals to stop the establishment of any new reprocessing and enrichment facilities until such time as an agreement on this issue is reached internationally.

Up to now, the NPT stands among the most accepted international treaties in history, having 188 countries as parties. Even so, the Treaty (as negotiated in the 1960s) authorizes 2.7% of its State Parties to possess nuclear weapons for national defence and security against military aggression. This represents a strong incentive to other countries to try to access these weapons for similar reasons.

The international community must be aware of this reality and demonstrate its readiness to strengthen the world's regime -- both to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons and to achieve nuclear disarmament in a realistic and reasonable period.

What Limits the NPT?

The NPT has limitations which prevent the achievement of these objectives. They can be summarized as follows:

  • The NPT lacks provisions to compel its recognized nuclear-weapon States (China, France, Russia, UK, and USA) to destroy all their nuclear weapons and related production facilities in a realistic but defined period, under international supervision.

    Among the NPT's different provisions, only one calls for all nuclear-weapon States (as well as other State Parties) to begin negotiations in good faith with the ultimate goal to achieve nuclear disarmament. The Treaty does not specify when these negotiations should begin or finish, or when the destruction of all nuclear weapons, their delivery systems and related production facilities. Neither does it say how this process would be supervised and by whom, among other specific questions.

    Perhaps the international community should consider discussions on a convention that sets a timetable for the destruction of all nuclear weapons in the near future.

  • The NPT relies on the application of IAEA safeguards to verify the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in States that do not possess nuclear weapons. The Treaty does not have its own verification system. Neither is the IAEA the legal depositary of the NPT -- the Agency has its own Statute and responsibilities, with governing bodies that set the budget and programmes.

    This does not mean, of course, that another international organization is needed to verify compliance with the NPT. However, some experts consider that the establishment of such an organization could be a realistic option -- one that should be considered thoroughly by the international community for the Treaty to play the role for which was adopted.

  • A State can withdraw from the NPT citing its supreme national interests, even without providing assurances to the international community about the use of the nuclear materials, installations, equipment, technology, knowledge and information that it acquired while a party to the NPT.

  • The NPT lacks an internal mechanism to consider alleged systematic violations or non-compliance of a State Party with its Treaty obligations. Such cases are funneled through the IAEA Board of Governors, which can refer cases that affect global peace and security to the UN Security Council.

    In my view, these limitations seriously impair the Treaty's power to influence and move forward the nuclear disarmament process at the multilateral level.

  • The NPT has no provisions that specifically prohibit nuclear trade or the transfer of sensitive advanced nuclear technology and equipment from the standpoint of nuclear proliferation, between NPT States and other States.

So how can we curb the chance that an NPT State indirectly or directly supports the development of a military nuclear programme elsewhere? In short, stronger international measures are needed.

Nuclear Trade. NPT States should adopt, as soon as possible, additional measures to explicitly prohibit nuclear trade and the transfer of sensitive advanced nuclear technology and equipment between NPT States and other States; the measures could take effect within three years of their adoption.

Veto Powers. The five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK, and USA) should refrain from using their veto during the consideration of any case involving the possible violation or non-compliance with nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament treaties and agreements, including cases in which they themselves may be involved.

Such a proposal, if adopted by the Security Council, would be a positive sign of the body's willingness to shed elements of a discriminatory character, at least with respect to issues concerning NPT obligations and commitments.

Challenging Road Ahead

Over the coming months and years, States will be faced with important decisions shaping the world's regime to control nuclear technology and the IAEA's role within that regime. Proposals sketched here seek to draw more attention to serious problems that, once solved, will lead to a safer nuclear world.

As States move toward the next NPT Review Conference in 2010, new opportunities will open to move forward on nuclear proliferation and disarmament issues at the multilateral level. Additionally, the IAEA's own study of its evolving role over the coming decade will cast valuable light on proposals outlined here to make the Agency a stronger player on the international nuclear landscape.

Jorge Morales Pedraza is a former Ambassador of Cuba and Permanent Representative to the IAEA and to the Preparatory Commission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. He also served as a senior officer at the IAEA.
This article expresses the author's personal views.