Nuclear ‘Safeguards’ – An Illusion of Protection

Click here to download a detailed Choose Nuclear Free paper on nuclear safeguards (PDF).

“Again and again it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first.” — Mike Rann, 1982, ‘Uranium: Play It Safe’

One of the biggest dangers facing the world today is that posed by nuclear weapons. The international ‘safeguards’ system led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is meant to protect against the misuse of ‘peaceful’ facilities and materials for weapons production. However the IAEA does not have the authority or resources to adequately carry out its safeguards role. The cornerstone of IAEA safeguards involves physical inspections of nuclear plants, but these inspections are at best periodic and partial and at worst non-existent.

The former Director-General of the IAEA, Dr Mohamed El Baradei, is frank about the limitations of safeguards. He has noted that the IAEA’s basic rights of inspection are “fairly limited”, that the safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities” and “clearly needs reinforcement”, that efforts to tighten the system have been “half hearted” and that the safeguards system runs on a “shoestring budget … comparable to a local police department.”

The IAEA relies on voluntary funding for 90% of its nuclear security program, 30% of its nuclear safety program, and 15% of its verification/safeguards program. Dr El Baradei said in 2006: “Everybody says nuclear terrorism is the number one national and international security issue. But until they translate this grandstanding statement into dollars and cents, we will not be able to deal effectively with the danger we are facing.”

The IAEA has no mandate to prevent the use of ‘peaceful’ nuclear facilities and materials for weapons production. At best, the IAEA detects diversion and then the matter is passed to the UN Security Council and to the realms of international diplomacy more generally. Responses to suspected non-compliance with safeguards agreements have been highly variable, ranging from inaction to the imposition of economic sanctions to UN Security Council-mandated decommissioning programs. Numerous examples illustrate how difficult and protracted the resolution (or attempted resolution) of such issues can be, e.g. North Korea, Iran, Iraq in the 1970s and again in the early 1990s.

There is no resolution in sight to some of the most fundamental problems with the safeguards system. These problems include the ability of countries to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to then develop a weapons capability as North Korea has done.

Some states prefer to take matters into their own hands rather than rely on the safeguards system. Israel bombed and destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. The US bombed and destroyed a reactor in Iraq in 1991. Israel bombed and destroyed a suspected reactor site in Syria in 2007.

Australia setting new lows

The uranium industry and its promoters routinely claim that safeguards “ensure” that Australian uranium and its by-products will not be used in nuclear weapons. However Australia has no authority or capacity to safeguard our uranium exports − we are entirely reliant on the limited and under-resourced safeguards system of the IAEA.

Australia continues to set new lows. In 2006, the Howard Government (with Labor Opposition support) agreed to export uranium to China − an undemocratic, secretive state with an appalling human rights record. Both the Labor Party and the Coalition have agreed to permit uranium sales to Russia despite the fact that not a single facility in Russia has been subjected to IAEA safeguards inspections since 2001.

Recommendations to strengthen safeguards

  1. The IAEA’s safeguards/verification program is seriously and chronically underfunded. The Australian Government should take the lead to ensure that this problem is rectified.
  2. Basing the IAEA safeguards system on periodic inspections is inadequate. A minimum requirement ought to be that all nuclear facilities of proliferation significance have IAEA inspectors permanently stationed on-site.
  3. The promotion of nuclear power should be removed from the IAEA’s mandate.
  4. Safeguards should apply at all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. Currently safeguards begin at the uranium enrichment stage.
  5. Action needs to be taken to address the stockpiling of ever-growing amounts of plutonium. The separation of plutonium from spent fuel at reprocessing plants continually exceeds its very limited as fuel in nuclear reactors. The problem can easily be addressed by stopping or suspending reprocessing.
  6. All nuclear facilities processing Australian uranium (and its by-products such as plutonium) ought to be subject to IAEA inspections. Currently, exceptions are made for the flimsiest of reasons.
  7. Important information about safeguards is kept secret by the Australian Government and there is a compelling case for greater transparency.
  8. The Australian Government should prohibit the enrichment of Australian uranium to 20% or more (highly enriched uranium) under any circumstances.
  9. A credible safeguards regime for Australia’s uranium exports depends on having a credible safeguards agency. However the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office has a poor track record and an independent public inquiry is urgently needed.While Australian uranium is exported, the following exclusions should apply:
    • Countries possessing nuclear weapons. Alternatively, uranium supply to nuclear weapons states should be made conditional on ongoing, demonstrated compliance with disarmament obligations under the NPT. A complete separation between civil and military nuclear programs should be a condition of supply (a condition which is not met in some of Australia’s current customer countries, e.g. China, Russia).
    • Countries that are not party to the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea).
    • Countries that are not compliant with their obligations under the NPT.
    • Countries that continue to produce fissile material for weapons (India, Pakistan and possibly others).
    • Countries with a recent history of covert nuclear weapons research (e.g. South Korea), whether or not they have been formally found to have breached IAEA safeguards agreements.
    • Countries that have not signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (e.g. China, USA).
    • Countries that do not have comprehensive, full-scope IAEA safeguards and an Additional Protocol in place.
    • Countries operating uranium enrichment facilities unless they are under international control.
    • Countries that reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, or allow other countries to separate plutonium on their behalf.
  10. Countries that do not have excellent standards of nuclear regulation and safety.
  11. Countries that do not comply with the best available management of radioactive waste.

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