This EOE article is adapted from an information paper published by the World Nuclear Association (WNA). WNA information papers are frequently updated, so for greater detail or more up to date numbers, please see the latest version on WNA website (link at end of article).
Over the past 40 years the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards system under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been a conspicuous international success in curbing the diversion of civil uranium into military uses. It has involved cooperation in developing nuclear energy while ensuring that civil uranium, plutonium and associated plants are used only for peaceful purposes and do not contribute in any way to proliferation or nuclear weapons programs. In 1995, the NPT was extended indefinitely. Its scope is also being widened to include undeclared nuclear activities.
Most countries have renounced nuclear weapons, recognizing that their possession would threaten, rather than enhance, national security. They have therefore embraced the NPT as a public commitment to use nuclear materials and technology only for peaceful purposes.
In the 1960s it was widely assumed at there would be 30-35 nuclear weapons states by the turn of the century. In fact there were eight – a tremendous testimony to the effectiveness of the NPT and its incentives both against weapons and for civil nuclear power, despite the baleful influence of the Cold War (1950s to 80s) which saw a massive build-up of nuclear weapons particularly by the USA and the Soviet Union.
The nuclear non-proliferation regime is much more than the NPT, although this is the pre-eminent international treaty on the subject. The regime includes treaties, conventions and common (multilateral and bilateral) arrangements covering security and physical protection, export controls, nuclear test-bans and, potentially, fissile material production cut-offs. The international community can apply pressure to states outside the NPT to make every possible effort to conform to the full range of international norms on nuclear non-proliferation that make up this regime. This was seen over 2007-08 with India.
NPT Origins And Objectives
The successful conclusion of negotiations on the NPT in 1968, followed by the treaty's coming into force in 1970, were landmarks in the history of non-proliferation. Another highlight occurred when the treaty was indefinitely extended in May 1995. At present, 187 states are party to the NPT. The NPT was essentially an agreement among the five nuclear weapons states and the other countries interested in nuclear technology. The deal was that assistance and cooperation would be traded for pledges, backed by international scrutiny, that no plant or material would be diverted to weapons’ use. Those who refused to be part of the deal would be excluded from international cooperation or trade involving nuclear technology. At present, 187 states are party to the NPT. These include all five declared Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) which had manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon before 1967: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The main countries remaining outside the NPT are Israel, India and Pakistan, though North Korea has moved to join them. These all have weapons programs which have come to maturity since 1970, so they cannot join without renouncing those. In 2008 special arrangements were agreed internationally for India, bringing it part way in.
The NPT's main objectives are to halt the further spread of nuclear weapons, to provide security for non-nuclear weapon states which have given up the nuclear option, to encourage international co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to pursue negotiations in good faith towards nuclear disarmament leading to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
The most important factor underpinning the safeguards regime is international political pressure and how particular nations perceive their long-term security interests in relation to their immediate neighbours. The solution to nuclear weapons proliferation is thus political more than technical, and it certainly goes beyond the question of uranium availability. International pressure not to acquire weapons is enough to deter most states from developing a weapons program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
The IAEA was established through a unanimous resolution by the United Nations in 1957 to help nations develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Within this role, the IAEA is responsible for the administration of safeguards arrangements. This provides assurance to the international community that individual countries are honoring their treaty commitments to use nuclear materials and facilities exclusively for peaceful purposes.
The IAEA carries out regular inspections of civil nuclear facilities to verify the accuracy of documentation supplied to the organization. The agency checks inventories and undertakes sampling and analysis of materials. Safeguards are designed to deter diversion of nuclear material by increasing the risk of early detection. They are complemented by controls on the export of sensitive technology from countries such as the UK and the US through voluntary bodies such as the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. Safeguards are backed up by the threat of international sanctions.
Scope of Safeguards
Traditional safeguards include arrangements to account for and control the use of nuclear materials. This verification is a key element in the international system and ensures that uranium, in particular, is used only for peaceful purposes.
Parties to the NPT agree to accept technical safeguard measures applied by the IAEA. These require that operators of nuclear facilities maintain and declare detailed accounting records of all movements and transactions involving nuclear material. Almost 900 nuclear facilities and several hundred other locations in 57 non-nuclear-weapons countries are subject to regular inspection. Their records and the actual nuclear material are audited. Inspections by the IAEA are complemented by other measures such as surveillance cameras and instrumentation.
The aim of traditional IAEA safeguards is to deter the diversion of nuclear material from peaceful use by maximizing the risk of early detection. At a broader level, they provide assurance to the international community that countries are honoring their treaty commitments to use nuclear materials and facilities exclusively for peaceful purposes. In this way, safeguards are a service both to the international community and to individual states, who recognize that it is in their own interest to demonstrate compliance with these commitments.
The inspections act as an alert system providing a warning of the possible diversion of nuclear material from peaceful activities. The system relies on:
- Material Accountability - tracking all inward and outward transfers and the flow of materials in any nuclear facility. This includes sampling and analysis of nuclear material, on-site inspections, and review and verification of operating records;
- Physical Security - restricting access to nuclear materials at the site of use; and
- Containment and Surveillance - use of seals, automatic cameras, and other instruments to detect unreported movement or tampering with nuclear materials, as well as spot checks on-site.
All NPT non-weapons states must accept these full-scope safeguards. In the five weapons states plus the non-NPT states (India, Pakistan and Israel), facility-specific safeguards apply. The IAEA inspectors regularly visit these facilities to verify completeness and accuracy of records.
The terms of the NPT cannot be enforced by the IAEA itself, nor can nations be forced to sign the treaty. In reality, as shown in Iran and North Korea, safeguards can be backed up by diplomatic, political, and economic measures.
Iraq, Iran and North Korea illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of international safeguards. While accepting safeguards at declared facilities, Iraq and Iran had set up elaborate equipment elsewhere in an attempt to enrich uranium, in Iraq's case to weapons-grade. North Korea used research reactors (not commercial electricity-generating reactors) and a reprocessing plant to produce some weapons-grade plutonium.
The weakness of the NPT regime lay in the fact that no obvious diversion of materials was involved. The uranium used as fuel probably came from indigenous sources, and the key nuclear facilities concerned were built by the countries themselves without being declared or placed under safeguards arrangements. Iraq, as an NPT party, was obliged to declare all facilities but did not do so. In North Korea, the activities mentioned took place before the conclusion of its NPT safeguards agreement, using a Russian "research" reactor and clandestine reprocessing plant.
Nevertheless, the activities were detected and in Iraq and North Korea, brought under control using international diplomacy. In Iraq, a military defeat assisted this process, but North Korea posed possibly the most intractable situation confronted by the IAEA. This has since been matched by Iran.
So, while traditional safeguards easily verified the accuracy and completeness of formal declarations by suspect states, in the 1990s attention turned to what might not have been declared, outside of the known materials flows and facilities.
Undeclared Nuclear Activities - the Additional Protocol
In 1993, a program to strengthen and extend the classical safeguards system was initiated, and a model protocol was agreed to by the IAEA Board of Governors in 1997. The measures boosted the IAEA's ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities, including those with no connection to the civil fuel cycle.
Innovations were of two kinds. Some could be implemented on the basis of IAEA's existing legal authority through safeguards agreements and inspections. Others required further legal authority to be conferred through an Additional Protocol. This must be agreed upon by each non-weapons state with the IAEA as a supplement to any existing comprehensive safeguards agreement. Weapons states (and India) have agreed to accept the principles of the model Additional Protocol.
Key elements of the model Additional Protocol:
- The IAEA is given considerably more information on nuclear and nuclear-related activities, including R&D, production of uranium and thorium (regardless of whether it is traded) and nuclear-related imports and exports.
- IAEA inspectors have greater rights of access. This includes any suspect location, at short notice (e.g., two hours), and the IAEA can deploy environmental sampling and remote monitoring techniques to detect illicit activities.
- States must streamline administrative procedures so that IAEA inspectors get automatic visa renewal and can communicate more readily with IAEA headquarters. All of these elements focus on nuclear materials.
Further evolution of safeguards will include evaluation of each state, taking account of its particular situation and the kind of nuclear materials it has. This will involve greater judgement on the part of IAEA and the development of effective methodologies which reassure NPT parties.
Where non-weapons states have a safeguards agreement with the IAEA and an Additional Protocol in force, the IAEA is able to say each year not only that declared nuclear material remains in peaceful activities, but also that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities.
For Nuclear Weapons States, the purpose of the Additional Protocol is different, namely to provide the IAEA with information on nuclear supply to, and cooperation with, non-weapons states. Such information assists the IAEA in its objective of detecting any undeclared activities in non-weapons states. (In this context India is understood to be effectively a Nuclear Weapons State, and the Additional Protocol for it was agreed by the IAEA in March 2009, but needs to be ratified by India.)
Safeguards in countries with nuclear weapons
In Nuclear Weapons States, IAEA safeguards apply under a "voluntary offer agreement". Where offered, facilities are put on each state's "list of facilities that are eligible for IAEA safeguards" and it is up to IAEA to decide which (if any) to inspect. However, all these facilities must maintain IAEA-standard accounting. In UK, USA and France all civil nuclear facilities are under safeguards. in China and Russia, few are.
India's situation as a nuclear-armed country excluded it from the NPT* so this and the related lack of full-scope IAEA safeguards meant that India was isolated from world trade by the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (see below). A clean waiver to the trade embargo was agreed in September 2008 in recognition of the country's impeccable non-proliferation credentials. India has always been scrupulous in ensuring that its weapons material and technology are guarded against commercial or illicit export to other countries.
In December 2006 the US Congress passed legislation to enable nuclear trade with India. Then in July 2007 a nuclear cooperation agreement with India was finalized, opening the way for India's participation in international commerce in nuclear fuel and equipment and requiring India to put most of the country's nuclear power reactors under IAEA safeguards and close down the Cirus research reactor by 2010. It would allow India to reprocess US-origin and other foreign-sourced nuclear fuel at a new national plant under IAEA safeguards. This would be used fuel arising from those 14 reactors designated as unambiguously civilian and under full IAEA safeguards.
The IAEA greeted the deal as being "a creative break with the past" - where India was excluded from the NPT. After much delay in India's parliament, it then set up a new and comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, plus an Additional Protocol. The IAEA board approved this in July 2008, after the agreement had threatened to bring down the Indian government. The agreement is similar to those between IAEA and non nuclear weapons states, notably Infcirc-66, the IAEA's information circular that lays out procedures for applying facility-specific safeguards, hence much more restrictive than many in India's parliament wanted.
The next step in bringing India into the fold was the consensus resolution of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in September 2008 to exempt India from its rule of prohibiting trade with non-members of the NPT. A bilateral trade agreement then went to US Congress for final approval. Similar agreements followed with Russia and France. The ultimate objective is to put India on the same footing as China in respect to responsibilities and trade opportunities, though it has had to accept much tighter international controls than other nuclear-armed countries.
The introduction to India's safeguards agreement with IAEA says that India's access to assured supplies of fresh fuel is an "essential basis" for New Delhi's acceptance of IAEA safeguards on some of its reactors and that India has a right to take "corrective measures to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies." But the introduction also says that India will "provide assurance against withdrawal of safeguarded nuclear material from civilian use at any time." In the course of NSG deliberations India also gave assurances regarding weapons testing.
In October 2008 US Congress passed the bill allowing civil nuclear trade with India, and a nuclear trade agreement was signed with France. The 2008 agreements ended 34 years of trade isolation on nuclear materials and technology.
Apart from safeguards, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty is designed particularly to cap the production of weapons-grade fissile materials in both NPT Nuclear Weapons States and India, Pakistan and Israel. India has expressed support for a verifiable Cut-off Treaty, China, Pakistan and Iran are opposed to one. The USA is not keen on such a Treaty being verifiable.
Limitations of Safeguards
Apart from situations addressed by the Additional Protocol, the greatest risk from nuclear weapons proliferation comes from countries which have not joined the NPT and which have significant unsafeguarded nuclear activities; India, Pakistan, and Israel fall within this category. While safeguards apply to some of their activities, others remain beyond scrutiny.
A further concern is that countries may develop various sensitive nuclear fuel cycle facilities and research reactors under full safeguards and then subsequently opt out of the NPT. Bilateral agreements, such as insisted upon by Australia and Canada for sale of uranium, address this by including fallback provisions, but many countries are outside the scope of these agreements. If a nuclear-capable country does leave the NPT, it is likely to be reported by the IAEA to the UN Security Council, just as if it were in breach of its safeguards agreement. Trade sanctions would then be likely.
IAEA safeguards, together with bilateral safeguards applied under the NPT can, and do, ensure that uranium supplied by countries such as Australia and Canada does not contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation. In fact, the worldwide application of those safeguards and the substantial world trade in uranium for nuclear electricity make the proliferation of nuclear weapons much less likely.
The Additional Protocol, once it is widely in force, will provide credible assurance that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in the states concerned. This will be a major step forward in preventing nuclear proliferation.
However, of 71 countries with significant nuclear activities, four NPT parties have not yet signed the Additional Protocol and another ten have not fully ratified it (another four of the 71 are outside the NPT).
Other IAEA Developments
In May 1995, NPT parties reaffirmed their commitment to a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty to prohibit the production of any further fissile material for use in weapons. This aims to complement the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty agreed to in 1996 and to codify commitments made by USA, UK, France, and Russia to cease production of weapons material, as well as putting a similar ban on China. This treaty would also put more pressure on Israel, India, and Pakistan to agree to international verification.
Another initiative relates to plutonium (Pu) and spent fuel. For uranium, safeguards take account of its nature: natural, depleted, low-enriched, or high-enriched (above 20% U-235), and the corresponding degree of concern regarding proliferation. A similarly differentiated approach is being considered for Pu. Two or three categories are possible: degraded Pu (e.g., in high-burnup fuel), low-grade Pu (e.g., separated from spent fuel of normal burnup), and high-grade Pu (e.g., from weapons or low-burnup fuel). The first two correspond to what is generally known as a reactor-grade Pu, sometimes defined as having more than 19% non-fissile isotopes.
Sensitive Nuclear technologies
While nuclear power reactors themselves are not a proliferation concern, enrichment and reprocessing technologies are open to use for other purposes, and have been the cause of proliferation through illicit or unsafeguarded use. This problem is largely addressed in the Additional Protocol, as described above, and in fact such sensitive nuclear technologies (SNT) are not widespread outside the NPT's weapons states. For most countries they would make no economic sense, and several recent initiatives focus on how to create conditions which make them unattractive propositions.
The NPT does not adequately deal with the issue of SNT. It refers to the “inalienable” right to use nuclear energy, but certainly does not guarantee the right to develop SNT. Nor, however, does the it explicitly limit the development of SNT, other than by the fundamental obligations of Non nuclear Weapons States not to acquire (or seek to acquire) nuclear weapons, and to place all their nuclear material under IAEA safeguards.
Current approaches to control the spread of SNT have focused on measures against the transfer of equipment, components, special materials and technology, through national export controls and multilateral coordination within the Nuclear Suppliers Group. However, these approaches do not fully address the problems of illicit acquisition of enrichment technology and development of indigenous enrichment technology. A way is needed to assess the international acceptability of enrichment projects.
Concerns about SNT programs are not addressed simply by having these activities placed under safeguards. Safeguards are an essential part of international confidence-building, but safeguards alone cannot provide assurance about a country’s future intent. An enrichment or reprocessing facility under safeguards today could be used as the basis for break-out from non-proliferation commitments in the future. In the case of enrichment, a large centrifuge plant, using LEU feed, could produce sufficient HEU for a nuclear weapon in a matter of days. An essential aspect of non-proliferation is minimising the risk of breakout occurring, through limiting the countries with SNT facilities to those regarded as presenting a low proliferation risk.
These matters are being addressed both politically and technically.
There are several other treaties and arrangements designed to reduce the risk of civil nuclear power's contributing to weapons proliferation.
Implementation of IAEA safeguards in the 13 non-nuclear weapon states of the European Union is governed by a Verification Agreement between the country concerned, EURATOM, and the IAEA. Safeguards activities are carried out jointly by the IAEA and EURATOM, and a 1992 agreement enables the IAEA itself to deploy more of its resources in member states where independent regional safeguards systems are not in place.
Shortly after entry into force of the NPT, multilateral consultations on nuclear export controls led to the establishment of two separate mechanisms for dealing with nuclear exports: the Zangger Committee in 1971, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 1975.
The Zangger Committee, also known as the Non Proliferation Treaty Exporters Committee, was set up to consider how procedures for exports of nuclear material and equipment related to NPT commitments. In August 1974, the committee produced a trigger list of items which would require the application of IAEA safeguards if exported to a non-Nuclear Weapons State which was not party to the NPT. The trigger list is regularly updated. The Zangger Committee now has 31 member states.
The NSG, also known as the London Group or London Suppliers Group, was set up in 1974 after India demonstrated its first nuclear device. The main reason for the group's formation was to bring in France, a major nuclear supplier nation which was not then party to the NPT. It included both members and non-members of the Zangger Committee. The group communicated its guidelines, essentially a set of export rules, to the IAEA in 1978. These were intended to ensure that transfers of nuclear materials or equipment would not be diverted to unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle or nuclear explosive activities, and formal government assurances to this effect were required from recipients. The guidelines also recognized the need for physical protection measures in the transfer of sensitive facilities, technology and weapons-usable materials, and strengthened retransfer provisions. The NSG began with seven members – the USA, the former USSR, the UK, France, Germany, Canada, and Japan – but now includes 35 countries. It was a key to bringing India more fully under safeguards in 2008.
Civilian nuclear power and proliferation
In the context of civilian nuclear power, proliferation resistance refers to measures to weaken the links between the civilian nuclear fuel cycle and the capability of a nation or a subnational group to acquire nuclear weapons. There is considerable debate as to the magnitude of this threat.
Nuclear power programs require large numbers of nuclear scientists and technicians, a network of research facilities, research reactors, and laboratories—some of which are indispensable to a nuclear weapons program and which could also serve as a cover to a parallel, dedicated weapons program. The most direct connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, however, is through the production and use of fissile materials, especially plutonium and uranium (HEU).
Neither of these exist in the civil fuel cycle in forms suitable for weapons. Uranium would need to be enriched to over 90% U-235 (instead of about 5%) and plutonium would need to be manufactured specially for weapons—reactor-grade material (over 20% and usually over 30% non-fissile isotopes) cannot be enriched to weapons-grade (weapons-grade plutonium is normally made in special production reactors. It could conceivably be made in civil reactors but in most cases that would be expensive, conspicuous—interfering with electricity generation—and hence unlikely).
There are broadly two proliferation risks associated with civilian nuclear power:
- That countries or terrorist groups could divert uranium directly from the civilian nuclear fuel cycle into nuclear explosives after greatly increasing the level of enrichment.
- That countries could use civilian nuclear facilities (power reactors, reprocessing plants, uranium-enrichment plants, etc.) and trained cadres of nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians as a cover and/or training ground for the dedicated acquisition of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
- A third risk outside the scope of nuclear power is the possible use of research reactors to make weapons-grade plutonium.
Appropriate technologies, institutions and policies have countered these risks for many decades by:
- ensuring that all traded uranium is under safeguards as outlined above, and
- ensuring that all nuclear facilities in non-weapons states are under full scope safeguards, so that any illicit use is quickly detected. .
A point of controversy is to what degree reprocessing and recycling weaken the proliferation resistance of the nuclear fuel cycle. Opponents of reprocessing emphasize the proliferation risks because (1) established processes produce separated plutonium that has to be very carefully accounted for and guarded, particularly at MOX fabrication plants and in transport from reprocessing plants to fabrication plants —all potential sources of diversion for subnational groups, and (2) safeguards at bulk-handling facilities, such as reprocessing plants and MOX fabrication plants, will be much more difficult to apply than at reactors. Sometimes MOX itself is said to be a proliferation hazard, though this is hard to sustain.
Supporters of reprocessing and recycling point out that (1) the reactor-grade plutonium in the civil nuclear fuel cycle is profoundly unsuitable for weapons. It has never been made to explode, and there is little likelihood of anyone trying to make it into an explosive. It is conceivable that a country currently relying only on a once-through fuel cycle could build a small clandestine reprocessing plant to separate plutonium, though this would place it in blatant contravention of its international obligations under the NPT and it would risk incurring major sanctions thereby.
Furthermore, (2) the use of plutonium in MOX extends the uranium resource by 25-30%, which is a significant factor in sustainability. Also, (3) recycling plutonium and burning it in reactors removes it compared to the once-through fuel cycle, where the plutonium in the spent fuel would become relatively accessible after a few hundred years. However, as noted above this is reactor-grade not weapons-grade plutonium. This could be important because one potential risk of the once-through fuel cycle is that the plutonium contained in the spent fuel could eventually become accessible to potential proliferators as the radioactive barrier provided by the fission products decays, by a factor of approximately 10 every 100 years.
Since 2006 the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) has been set up. A major aim of this is to dissuade further countries from building facilities which involve the two proliferation-sensitive technologies - ones which could conceivably be used for weapons in the absence of intentional constraints. These technologies are enrichment and reprocessing. GNEP seeks to provide assurance of fuel supply and other services from the main nuclear countries where they are already established which would thereby make these superfluous in most countries. One of the main technical initiatives associated with it is development of reprocessing technologies which do not separate plutonium on its own, and which enable recovery of certain wastes so that they can be burned in fast reactors.See also article on Reprocessing of nuclear fuel.
Proliferation risks are best assessed in the light of history. Iraq and Iran set up clandestine enrichment facilities in contravention to their obligations under NPT which they hoped would escape detection. North Korea used a large research reactor to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium, as India and Israel had much earlier (outside the NPT).
They also need to keep some sane perspective: Only about ten tonnes of uranium from a mine is required to produce a nuclear weapon, and that amount can be obtained from almost any rocks if cost is no object. In contrast, some 60,000 tonnes is used each year for power generation. So while safeguards on the traded uranium are important and widely supported, the proliferation issue is much more to do with the sensitive technologies of enrichment and reprocessing, at least ensuring that civil plants are not used for illicit purposes, and establishing provisions such as the Additional Protocol to enable international scrutiny of what goes on in NPT countries.