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Stronger Nuclear Safeguards System Taking Shape

IAEA Moving Toward More Efficient Verification Approach for Nuclear Programmes

environmental monitoring

Tests conducted as part of safeguards environmental monitoring trials. (Photo: Mouchkin/IAEA)

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A stronger global nuclear safeguards system is taking shape, rooted in experience that raised concerns about clandestine weapon programmes and the capabilities of international inspectors to detect them. A new approach was endorsed recently at the IAEA, the world's nuclear inspectorate, as part of wider verification reforms enacted over the past five years.

The new approach - called "integrated safeguards" - incorporates measures that significantly strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of the safeguards system, which was born in the 1960s and today faces new kinds of nuclear proliferation challenges. It builds from lessons learned after inspectors -- under far-ranging inspections mandated by the UN Security Council after the 1991 Gulf War-- discovered Iraq's secret nuclear-weapons programme.

China signing

China recently became the first nuclear-weapon State to bring into force an additional protocol to strengthen safeguards. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

"The discoveries in Iraq, as well as later revelations involving the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, shattered assumptions about the world's nuclear non-proliferation regime," said IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei in briefing the Agency's Board of Governors, which endorsed the new approach in March. "As importantly, they made it clear that the IAEA verification system was neither sufficiently robust nor comprehensive enough to deal with the new reality. The new approach is more comprehensive in its outlook, more effective in its measures and ultimately more efficient in terms of cost."

Integrated safeguards move to give the Agency more flexibility in deciding where to focus its efforts and limited resources the most, including what inspectors should concentrate on, where they need to go, and which verification tools to apply. As such, the approach combines what are called "classical" and "strengthened" safeguards measures already in place.

"Classical" measures involve the use of tamper-resistant metal seals, surveillance cameras, and analytical instruments, for example, to verify the accounting and control of nuclear material which States declare to the Agency. They enable inspectors to check that official records are correct and that designated materials are where they should be in the right amount. "Strengthened" measures - which where introduced in the late 1990s - give inspectors more authority. They allow, for example, wider access to information about a State's nuclear activities, wider access to nuclear-related locations, and the use of advanced verification tools, including environmental monitoring techniques and satellite telecommunications systems.

"The IAEA Board's green light represents an important milestone, putting into place the blueprint for the new approach," said Mr. Pierre Goldschmidt, the IAEA Deputy Director General for Safeguards. "That means we can move ahead with inspections that are tailored on a State-by-State basis and give us a more accurate and fuller picture of the entire nuclear programme. The end result is a higher level of assurance to the international community that safeguarded nuclear material is not being diverted for weapons-making."

All IAEA safeguards inspections - nearly 2500 a year covering altogether 900 facilities worldwide -- are carried out under agreements with States that form the legal framework for global nuclear verification. Integrated safeguards will only be applied in States that have the required set of legal agreements in force with the Agency - specifically, safeguards agreements concluded pursuant to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that authorize classical verification measures, and agreements modeled on the 1997 Additional Protocol that authorize strengthened measures. Currently 25 States have the set of agreements in force, and altogether 62 States with NPT safeguards agreements have had Additional Protocols approved by the IAEA Board of Governors.

Integrated safeguards already have been applied in Australia beginning in 2001.