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Challenges in Nuclear Verification

Washington, DC, USA
Center for Strategic and International Studies

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

(As prepared for delivery)

Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am very pleased to be with you today.

I have long been impressed by the considerable intellectual firepower which CSIS brings to bear on the major issues in international relations.

I have been involved in nuclear verification for the past 25 years, both as a diplomat and as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Today, I will share with you my observations on some of the challenges that we face and our efforts to address them. I will also consider some topical issues that may be of interest to this knowledgeable audience.  

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For more than 60 years, the IAEA has made a unique contribution to international peace and security by verifying that countries are not developing nuclear weapons.

Today, we implement safeguards in 182 countries. Thanks to the dedication and professionalism of our staff, our work in nuclear verification – and indeed in all areas – enjoys great credibility. We are trusted by our 171 Member States. I am very grateful for their support.

As head of this remarkable organization, I am fortunate to have the services of a highly skilled team of several hundred safeguards inspectors and expert analytical staff. Supported by state-of-the-art technology, they help us to draw safeguards conclusions which we report to our Board of Governors in our annual Safeguards Implementation Report.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

One of the most important developments in the history of nuclear verification was the approval by our Board in 1997 of a new legal instrument – the additional protocol to the safeguards agreements which countries conclude with the IAEA.

Generally known as the AP, this is a powerful verification tool. It gives the Agency broader access to information about all parts of a State’s nuclear fuel cycle, including research and development activities, as well as the manufacturing and export of sensitive nuclear-related equipment and material. The AP also gives our inspectors greater access to locations, in some cases with as little as two hours’ notice.

The additional protocol significantly increases the Agency’s ability to verify the peaceful use of all nuclear material in a country. Without it, we cannot draw what we call the “broader conclusion” that all nuclear material in a country has remained in peaceful activities.

When I became IAEA Director General in 2009, only 94 countries were implementing the AP. The Agency actively encouraged countries to implement APs and provided practical assistance, for example in drafting or amending legislation. Today, 134 countries have brought APs into force. This is very encouraging. However, the combination of comprehensive safeguards agreement and AP needs to become universal. I constantly encourage all countries that have not yet done so to conclude and implement additional protocols.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite positive developments such as the introduction of the additional protocol, we face some challenges in our nuclear verification work.

The world in which the IAEA implements safeguards today is very different from that envisaged by our founding fathers in 1957. Nuclear proliferation is now easier than it has ever been. Globalization, new technology and modern communications have made it possible to access knowledge, materials and expertise that were previously not widely available.

Many countries, both developed and developing, have made great technological progress. Technology that could be used for the development of nuclear weapons is no longer out of reach.

The steady increase in the amount of nuclear material and the number of nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, and continuing pressure on our regular budget, are among the key challenges facing the Agency today.

The amount of nuclear material in the world is growing every year as countries make more use of nuclear power and other peaceful applications of nuclear technology. Nuclear material no longer in use, and nuclear facilities that have been shut down, also remain under safeguards.

I am grateful for the financial support of our Member States in what for many are difficult circumstances. But the fact is that, for some years, the IAEA has had to undertake verification activities against a background of close to zero budget increases. This year, our budget has actually been cut.

Pressure on the regular budget is a particularly serious problem for the IAEA. Why? Because, under our Statute, inspections must be financed through the regular budget. This is intended to ensure that safeguards implementation is neutral and unbiased. Voluntary contributions from Member States therefore cannot be used for inspections, which are at the heart of safeguards implementation. If our regular budget continues to suffer cuts in the coming years, a reduction in the number of IAEA inspectors will be unavoidable. This could seriously undermine our nuclear verification activities.

Let me give you a few numbers. Our safeguards budget last year was around 142 million euros. Since 2010, it has increased by only 6.3 percent in real terms.

However, in the same period, the number of nuclear facilities under safeguards rose by 12 percent to just over 1,300, while the number of so-called significant quantities of nuclear material under safeguards – that means enough material to make a nuclear explosive device – grew by 24% to 213,000. The number of nuclear material accounting reports from Member States which we process has gone up by more than a third since 2010 to 880,000.

All of this means that an ever-increasing burden is being placed on our nuclear safeguards inspectors and analytical staff. We have responded by doing our best to work as efficiently as possible and find more cost-effective ways of doing things. For example, we have increased the number of surveillance cameras installed at facilities where nuclear material is present by a third since 2010 to nearly 1,600. The number of unattended monitoring systems has risen by 16 percent to 171, while the number of remotely readable, tamper-proof seals placed on nuclear material has jumped by nearly 280 percent to 560. Partly as a result of these efforts, the number of days spent by our inspectors in the field has barely changed since 2010, increasing by just 0.4%. We will continue to seek efficiency measures, but we are approaching the limits of what is possible given the need to maintain a sufficient number of inspectors in the field.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A clear division of responsibility between the IAEA and Member States has traditionally been respected. We are responsible for the technical work of implementing safeguards. Member States make any policy decisions they may consider necessary, based on the factual and impartial reports which we provide.

The credibility of the Agency is our greatest asset. Impartial, independent and objective safeguards implementation is essential to maintain that credibility. If our credibility is thrown into question, and, in particular, if attempts are made to micro-manage or put pressure on the Agency in implementing nuclear verification, that would be counter-productive and extremely harmful.

I periodically remind IAEA Member States of the importance of respecting established safeguards practices. The bottom line is that Member States should not intervene in our work of safeguards implementation. We, for our part, do not attempt to intervene in policy decisions of the Board and General Conference.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Periodic attempts have been made to give the Agency new tools in nuclear verification.

In 2005/2006, a Member State grouping known as Committee 25 considered ways of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the safeguards system. It considered topics such as enhancing the Agency’s satellite imagery capabilities and encouraging States to provide additional information on specified equipment and non-nuclear material to enable the Agency to better address clandestine nuclear trade. However, after six meetings and numerous reports and presentations, those discussions ended without agreement. 

For the foreseeable future, I see little prospect of Member States deciding to expand the existing verification instruments at the Agency’s disposal – comprehensive safeguards agreements and additional protocols. We will therefore continue to work with the existing tools.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me give you some examples of how we have responded to the challenges I have outlined.

As I mentioned, the additional protocol is the most robust and powerful tool at our disposal. Efforts to make it universal must continue and the cooperation of Member States is crucial.

Investing in the most up-to-date technology has helped us to improve the effectiveness of nuclear verification.

A major step forward was the completion in 2015 of a comprehensive modernization of the IAEA safeguards laboratories, costing around 80 million euros. I am proud to tell you that we finished this major project on time and within budget.

The modernized laboratories increased our capacity for sampling nuclear material by over 50 percent and gave us improved precision in analytical services. Without this new technology, the Agency could not have undertaken the work of verifying and monitoring Iran’s implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as speedily and efficiently as we have.

A piece of equipment known as a large geometry secondary ion mass spectrometer is so sensitive that it can identify a single uranium or plutonium particle 100 times smaller than the width of a strand of human hair. The tests we carry out to determine whether uranium is present in a sample of material are 10 times more sensitive than they were before the new laboratories became operational. The time required to analyse nuclear material and swipe samples for the possible presence of plutonium has been reduced from 55 days to 35.

We have benefited from advances in satellite imagery. We increasingly monitor nuclear facilities remotely in real time, using permanently installed cameras and other instruments. The Agency collects and analyses hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by our surveillance cameras installed in numerous nuclear facilities.

Under a project known as MOSAIC, completed in 2018, we undertook an extensive overhaul of our safeguards IT system. The result has been an enhancement of existing IT tools and software applications, and the introduction of new ones. We now have an IT system that enables us to conduct safeguards activities more effectively and efficiently.

 Our Collaborative Analysis Platform, the first phase of which was completed in March 2017, allows us to use some of the most powerful search engines and analytical tools available anywhere in the world. This has led to a dramatic surge in the number of open-source items of information collected by the Agency to the point where we now collect over 140 million such items every year. The Platform enables staff to spot possible relationships and patterns among different items of information relevant to safeguards.

Technological developments are exciting and proceeding at a rapid rate. But I must stress that technology can never be a full substitute for the presence of experienced inspectors on the ground. That will always be essential for effective nuclear verification.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

An important development in the IAEA’s verification work has been the introduction of what we call the State-level safeguards approach. This involves implementing safeguards in countries by considering their nuclear activities and related technical capabilities as a whole, rather than on a facility basis.

This has been the subject of extensive dialogue with Member States. So far, we have developed State-level safeguards approaches for 130 countries with comprehensive safeguards agreements. Around 97% of all nuclear material in States with CSAs is located in these countries. This approach has enabled the Agency to better focus its verification efforts and led to better use of resources. We will continue to cooperate with countries to develop and implement State-level safeguards approaches as we accumulate experience with implementing them.

Another notable development has been the establishment of highly specialised, expert teams which focus exclusively on some of the most important safeguards issues. In recent years, I have created such teams in the case of Iran and North Korea. This focus enables team members to build up unrivalled, in-depth knowledge and experience of the nuclear programmes of the State on which they are concentrating.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You are all familiar with the high-profile verification cases on the Agency’s agenda – Iran, North Korea and Syria.

There is a limit to what we can say publicly about these and other cases because we are legally obliged to protect confidential information entrusted to us. In particular, the Agency does not publicly discuss information provided by third parties.  This can sometimes make it difficult for Member States and the public to understand what the Agency is doing. It can also be frustrating for us when we see inaccurate information under discussion in the public domain. However, public silence on our part on a particular issue should never be taken to mean inaction. We work quietly and methodically, within the established safeguards framework. If we have concerns about the nuclear activities of a particular country that cannot be resolved with that country, we bring our concerns to the attention of our Board of Governors.

The Iran nuclear issue has a long and complex history. The IAEA has focused on Iran’s nuclear activities since 2002. In December 2015, I presented a Final Assessment on past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme to the IAEA Board.

I stated that Iran had conducted a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device before the end of 2003. However, these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. I also stated that the Agency had no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.

The Board declared that its consideration of this item was closed. This paved the way for implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to begin in January 2016.

Since then, the IAEA has been verifying and monitoring Iran’s implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. In my regular reports to the Board, I have stated that Iran is implementing those commitments. The Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement. Evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran continue.

The arrangements in place for Iran, comprising a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, Additional Protocol, and additional transparency measures under the JCPOA, amount to the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is 10 years this month since IAEA inspectors were required to leave North Korea. Since then, the Agency has not been able to carry out any verification activities in the country. However, the Agency continues to monitor the DPRK’s nuclear programme and evaluate all safeguards-relevant information available to it, including open source information and satellite imagery.

In the past 10 years, the DPRK’s nuclear programme has significantly expanded. The country announced in 2009 that it would start uranium enrichment and build a light water reactor. In 2013, it announced that it would take measures to readjust and restart all the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. The DPRK has done what it said it would do.

The Agency has observed indications of various activities at the Yongbyon site. These include the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor and reprocessing plant, the extension of the building housing the reported centrifuge enrichment facility, the continuing construction of the light water reactor, as well as diverse infrastructure work. Since 2009, the DPRK has announced on five separate occasions that it had conducted a nuclear test, in addition to the one announced in 2006.

Over the past year, activities at some facilities continued or developed further, while some other facilities appeared not to be operating. In Yongbyon, we have seen indications of the continued use of the reported centrifuge enrichment facility throughout the past year. Construction of the Light Water Reactor continued, and some infrastructure work took place near the Kuryong River. We saw indications that the 5 MW(e) reactor was in operation until late summer, but then operations became intermittent and it seems not to have been operating since December. There have been no indications of reprocessing activities at the Radiochemical Laboratory.

However, without access, the Agency cannot confirm the nature and purpose of the activities that I described.

The IAEA closely follows international developments on the DPRK nuclear issue. We hope that these processes will lead to an agreement and to the implementation of concrete denuclearization measures. The Agency does not have a role in political negotiations among countries concerned. However, it is important that any agreement on denuclearization is accompanied by an effective and sustainable verification mechanism.

The IAEA, with its long experience and well-established practices, is the only international organization that can conduct verification and monitoring activities in an impartial, independent and objective manner. This would help to make the implementation of any agreement sustainable. It would also contribute to the denuclearization of the DPRK in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, as required by numerous resolutions of the Security Council.

Since 2017, the Agency has intensified its efforts to monitor the DPRK’s nuclear programme and enhanced its readiness to undertake verification and monitoring activities in the DPRK if a political agreement is reached among countries concerned. Subject to the approval of our Board of Governors, we could respond within weeks to any request to send inspectors back to the DPRK.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In June 2011, the IAEA Board of Governors found Syria to be in non-compliance with its obligations under its NPT Safeguards Agreement with the Agency.

This followed my report the previous month which concluded that it was very likely that a building at the Dair Alzour site, which was destroyed by Israel in 2007, was a nuclear reactor that should have been declared to the Agency by Syria under its Safeguards Agreement. Syria has not engaged substantively with the Agency on the nature of the Dair Alzour site and three other locations since June 2008.

Such cases serve as a reminder of the extent to which safeguards implementation depends on cooperation by the countries concerned. They also illustrate the need for States to engage in serious negotiations in cases of non-compliance in order to make it possible for the Agency to carry out its verification work.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On a more general note, allow me to say a few words about the IAEA’s use of what is known as third-party information. This refers to information made available to the Agency by a State, other party or individuals, relating to another State. It may include nuclear procurement related information, or information that might suggest the possible existence of undeclared nuclear material or activities in a State which should be subject to safeguards.

Third-party information is a very small part of the information available to the Agency, but it can play an important role in identifying issues that we may need to address. We know from experience that, sometimes, information provided to the Agency can be simply wrong. At times, we find it to be accurate and credible. The use of third-party information has enabled the Agency to take follow-up actions with several countries to address issues related to the correctness and completeness of their declarations.

In line with established safeguards practices, all safeguards-relevant information, including third party information, is reviewed very critically, carefully evaluated, and followed up with the State concerned, if necessary. We do not take any information at face value. No single piece of information is used without having been thoroughly analysed. If we assess that the information is broadly credible, we take action such as requesting clarification from the State, or seeking access to information or locations. If information is not credible, we do not take action.

Experience has shown this to be the right approach.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A question that has arisen periodically in recent decades concerns weaponization issues.

For me, it is clear that the Agency has the authority to look into weaponization because our mandate is to prevent the diversion and misuse of nuclear material.

If the Agency becomes aware of possible weaponization activities in a country, and these activities could be related to nuclear material or the nuclear fuel cycle, then the Agency seeks clarification from the State under the comprehensive safeguards agreement and/or additional protocol of the country concerned. Our authority in such cases is clear.

In the past, the Agency has also addressed possible weaponization activities involving dual–use technology, with the involvement of Member States or with the mandate from our Board of Governors or the Security Council.

In all cases, the Agency acts impartially, independently and objectively. The Director General is, as always, subject to the authority of the Board of Governors.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite the challenges I have outlined, the IAEA remains a highly effective organization which is fully implementing its Atoms for Peace and Development mandate. I remain optimistic about its future.

Member State support is strong and our membership continues to grow. Staff morale is high. However, the IAEA safeguards system, which the world has grown used to as a cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime, should not be taken for granted.

I am doing all I can to use the resources entrusted to us by Member States as efficiently and effectively as possible. But efficiency gains can only achieve so much and, as I said a moment ago, we are gradually approaching the limits of what is possible. It is important that secure funding is available for the IAEA’s nuclear verification activities.

Impartial, independent and objective nuclear verification is the foundation of my approach. It is at the heart of the credibility which the IAEA enjoys. As Director General, I make every effort to ensure that our credibility is maintained. But that is a shared responsibility. Member States need to play their part.

I am confident that Member States will provide the active practical and moral support that will enable the IAEA to continue to make a unique and valuable contribution to international security through nuclear verification.

Thank you.

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