Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Arms Control: Are We Making Progress?

Vienna, Austria

by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

Washington, DC, USA
2005 Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference

In recent years, four developments have radically altered the security landscape - the emergence of clandestine nuclear supply networks, the spread of nuclear fuel cycle technology, the efforts by more countries to acquire nuclear weapons, and the declared ambition of terrorists to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction.

World leaders regularly declare nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism to be the number one threat to humanity. Many people around the world were therefore dismayed by the lack of any agreement on how to address these challenges at the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons last May. More recently, they were shocked when the United Nations World Summit failed, in its declaration, to even mention the terms "nuclear non-proliferation" or "nuclear disarmament".

I, too, have been disheartened by these outcomes. However, I have always believed that progress in the non-proliferation and arms control field should be measured, not in terms of declarations or rhetoric, but in terms of concrete results.

I would therefore propose four "yardsticks" against which to gauge our recent performance and set future goals: (1) the effectiveness of nuclear verification; (2) the control of sensitive nuclear technology; (3) the protection of nuclear material; and (4) compliance with commitments.

Effectiveness of Nuclear Verification

How effective is nuclear verification?

On an annual budget of about $120 million, an IAEA safeguards staff of some 650 individuals oversees approximately 900 nuclear facilities in 71 countries. In addition to the expertise and thoroughness these individuals bring to their work, the continuing effectiveness of the Agency's verification efforts depends on a number of factors.

First, the extent of access to information and locations in a given country, as regulated by legal agreements. In today´s security environment, inspections that only verify what a country has declared are not likely to be judged "effective", in terms of the assurance they provide the international community.

On the other hand, the expanded access provided by the additional protocol to safeguards agreements, which enables the Agency to verify possible undeclared activities, has proven its worth. This protocol was agreed upon in 1997, based on the Agency's painful wake-up call on Iraq´s pre-1991 nuclear weapons programme. But I should point out that both safeguards agreements and additional protocols are focused on nuclear material - and therefore, the Agency's legal authority to investigate possible parallel weaponization activity is limited, absent some nexus linking the activity to nuclear material.

Today only 70 countries have additional protocols in force. This limited number, eight years after the promulgation of the protocol, falls well short of our goal of universal application. The Agency´s verification efforts will not be judged fully "effective" on a global scale as long as its access rights remain uneven. The additional protocol must become the universal standard for verifying nuclear non-proliferation commitments.

The central purpose of verification is to build confidence. Our experience has shown that, in cases where proliferation concerns have created a confidence deficit, even the provisions of the additional protocol may not be adequate. In such cases, additional "transparency measures" may be required.

A recent case in point is the IAEA´s verification work in Iran. Over the past 2½ years, we have compiled a detailed picture of most aspects of Iran´s past and current nuclear programme. But given that the programme was concealed for nearly 20 years, and that a number of open questions remain, the responsibility rests with Iran to provide, if needed, additional transparency measures - beyond the confines of the safeguards agreement and additional protocol - to enable the Agency to resolve these questions, and to provide the required assurance about the peaceful nature of Iran´s nuclear programme.

In addition to access, the effectiveness of verification depends on having sufficient human and financial resources, continuously improving the quality of inspection tools, and ensuring the availability of relevant information. The Agency´s verification activities operate on a shoestring budget, particularly given the expanding scope of our responsibilities. In an effort to "stay ahead of the game", we are exploring innovative technologies (such as noble gas sampling) for detecting undeclared nuclear facilities and activities. And we have yet to establish a mechanism under which States systematically share information with the IAEA on the export of sensitive nuclear material and certain technology. This should be done without delay. For the IAEA to be fully effective, the national governments we serve must provide a level of support commensurate with the challenges we face.

Control of Sensitive Nuclear Technology

The second "yardstick" of performance is our ability to control sensitive nuclear technology. Experience has shown that a key "choke point" for nuclear weapons development continues to be the production of weapon-usable nuclear material. Therefore, it is only logical that we act urgently to improve control over activities that involve uranium enrichment and plutonium separation.

When I last spoke to this conference in June 2004, I had just established a group of international experts to explore options for better control over these proliferation sensitive aspects of the fuel cycle. Their work, and the proposals offered by other experts and several governments, have helped to shape my understanding of how such controls might be put in place.

As I see it, this could occur in a series of four steps:

  1. Provide assurance of supply of reactor technology and nuclear fuel;
  2. Accept a time-limited moratorium (of perhaps 5-10 years) on new uranium enrichment and plutonium separation facilities - at the very least for countries that do not currently have such technologies;
  3. Establish a framework for multilateral management and control of the "back end" of the fuel cycle (i.e. spent fuel reprocessing and waste disposal); and
  4. Create a similar framework for multilateral management and control of the "front end" of the fuel cycle (i.e. enrichment and fuel production).

Much attention is already being given to the first step - the assurance of supply. The importance of this step is that, by providing reliable access to reactors and fuel at competitive market prices, we remove the incentive or justification for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. In so doing, we could go a long way towards addressing current concerns about the dissemination of sensitive fuel cycle technologies.

The key feature of such an arrangement is not simply availability, but reliability. For this assurance of supply mechanism to be credible, it must be based on apolitical, objective non-proliferation criteria. Under the IAEA Statute, the Agency is authorized to serve as the guarantor of two fuel cycle related services: the supply of fissile material for fuel, and the reprocessing of spent fuel. The IAEA could therefore act as the facilitator and guarantor of a virtual or actual fuel bank, as a supplier of last resort.

I am encouraged by the range of supportive reactions to my initiatives. In Moscow in July, a conference organized by ROSATOM discussed, among other multilateral approaches, the feasibility of fuel leasing. The uranium industry and the World Nuclear Association have set up a working group to explore strategies for fuel assurances. The US announced last month in Vienna that it would make available 17.4 metric tonnes of high enriched uranium (HEU) to be down-blended as fuel and used as part of a fuel bank under an assurance of supply scheme. Russia has also recently indicated that it intends to make nuclear material available to the IAEA, to be used as part of an Agency fuel bank. And the Nuclear Threat Initiative, led by Sam Nunn and Ted Turner, is ready to contribute generously towards the same goal.

Given the rising expectation for the expanded use of nuclear energy in many countries, these multilateral approaches could offer clear advantages in terms of safety, security, economics and non-proliferation.

Protection of Nuclear Material

The third "yardstick" would measure our performance in securing and protecting nuclear material.

Multiple international and regional initiatives are underway to help countries improve the physical protection of such material. Good progress is being made, but much work remains to be done. As I understand it, in Russia and the Newly Independent States, a good part of this physical protection work is still to be completed.

The International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism was adopted by the UN General Assembly in April 2005. Many governments have also responded to UN Security Council resolution 1540, adopted in April 2004. Both the Convention and resolution 1540 call on countries to criminalize the illicit possession and use of radioactive material, and aim to enhance efforts to detect and combat illicit trafficking. And in July, parties to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material agreed on major changes that would make it legally binding for countries to protect nuclear facilities and material in domestic use, storage and transport.

With strong support from the IAEA, Russia and the US, multiple countries are also taking steps to convert their research reactors from HEU to LEU fuel, and to return the HEU to the country of origin. Seven such transfers of fresh fuel back to Russia have been made since 2002, and we are continuing to work on arrangements for the repatriation of spent research reactor fuel of Russian origin. In Kazakhstan, a project supported by the Nuclear Threat Initiative is nearly completed, which involves down-blending almost 3000 kilograms of HEU and placing it in safe storage.

These and other projects are helping to reduce the risks posed by existing nuclear material. But much remains to be done. Of the research reactors currently in operation, 99 still use HEU enriched to 90% or higher. And more than 20 research reactors remain that cannot be converted from using HEU because of the lack of adequate equivalent LEU fuels. The IAEA is supporting the international effort to develop and qualify an appropriate fuel. In the meantime, we are also helping countries upgrade the physical protection of such facilities.

The manner in which to deal with plutonium stocks also remains an open question - whether to burn the plutonium in mixed oxide (MOX) fuel to generate electricity, or to mix it with high level radioactive waste for disposal in a vitrified form. One innovative but technologically feasible approach for the longer term would be the use of proliferation-resistant forms of plutonium fuel.

Compliance With Commitments

The fourth "yardstick" relates to performance in complying with non-proliferation and arms control commitments.

For nuclear non-proliferation commitments to be effective, they must be backed by credible mechanisms to deal with cases of compliance. The potential for being referred to the UN Security Council has clearly acted as an inducement for compliance in some cases; however, we should recall that the referral of North Korea to the Council, in 1992 and again in 2003, resulted in little to no action. To be effective, the UN Security Council must be ready at all times to engage, in order to cope with emerging threats to international peace and security.

On the nuclear disarmament front, no mechanism exists to monitor compliance with commitments. However, the slow progress of nuclear-weapon States towards making good on their commitments to move towards nuclear disarmament - with 27 000 warheads still in existence - is creating a environment of cynicism among the non-nuclear-weapon States.

Confidence in disarmament commitments would be measurably enhanced if nuclear-weapon States were to take action towards reducing the strategic role currently given to nuclear weapons. A good beginning would be to move away from the Cold War status of maintaining these weapons on hair-trigger alert. And to date, we have not even begun to consider an approach that could replace nuclear deterrence.

Our effectiveness in curbing proliferation will depend on our success in creating the necessary environment in which nuclear weapons are regarded as a "historical accident" from which we are energetically working to extricate ourselves. Creating this environment requires, simultaneously: unity of purpose by the international community; leadership by the nuclear-weapon States; actively addressing festering regional tensions; and creative thinking towards the development of an alternative system of collective security.

Conclusion

In my view, we are approaching a crossroads. After the end of the Cold War, we were hopeful that a new global security regime would emerge - inclusive, equitable, and no longer dependent on nuclear deterrence. Regrettably, we have made little progress towards that goal.

The civil society you represent can play a crucial role on all the above fronts by making it clear that business as usual is not an option, and that a world free from nuclear weapons is the only option.

Last update: 10 November 2014