With President Ahmadinijad last week boasting of the production of Iran’s first batch of highly enriched uranium and its “capability to enrich at over 20 percent and at over 80 percent,” the need to accurately account for and safeguard Iran’s nuclear material is of ever-pressing importance.
Most observers agree that any weapons program in Iran is more likely to follow a clandestine path, since Tehran is unlikely to risk diverting materials from IAEA monitored facilities. Yet just how satisfied can we be that Iran can’t actually misuse the stocks of uranium currently safeguarded by the IAEA?
Given the scope of the IAEA’s worldwide responsibilities, it must rely on remote nuclear monitoring equipment to ensure that the nuclear fuel under its watch is not diverted for military use. Many people fail to realize that this system is not fool proof. However, the steps required to fill in these gaps and strengthen the IAEA require additional resources that the international community has to date been unwilling to provide…
In 2008, the Non-Proliferation Education Center’s Henry Sokolski pointed out that of the IAEA’s 1,200 remote inspection cameras, nearly 800 have no “near-real-time” feedback, and virtually none of those with live streams can be found in “countries of concern.” Recordings from the “offline” cameras are instead collected manually once every 90 days by IAEA staff. As such, the IAEA has just four opportunities per year to find out if materials it claims to be safeguarding have been diverted for weapons use.
Worse still, notes Sokolski, is that in a review of these recordings, it was shown that between 1999 and 2005 there were twelve occasions when camera “blackouts” lasted for more than thirty hours. The proliferation risks associated with camera “blackouts” in countries of concern is magnified by the fact that the IAEA may not find out about them for weeks at a time. When viewed in the context of the extremely short time it took Iran to announce the completion of its first batch of 20% HEU, the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapons “break-out” scenario under full IAEA supervision is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Given the shortcomings detailed so far, it is clear that the IAEA’s capacity to monitor the Iranian nuclear program needs to be increased. The Additional Protocol, which once in force would give the IAEA much greater access to suspected nuclear information and sites, is seen by many as a key part of the solution.
However, research conducted by Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists shows how difficult it can be to accurately account for nuclear materials even in countries that have ratified the Additional Protocol. In 1994 for example, 69 kg of plutonium was unaccounted for at the Tokai-mura fuel fabrication plant in Japan, and was found only after a lengthy and costly investigation. More recently, a 2005 leak at the UK’s BNFL Sellafield facility (which led to an accumulation of deposits containing 19 tons of uranium and 190 kg of plutonium) was not discovered until eight months after it began – this despite BNFL’s claim that the plant possessed one of the most advanced monitoring systems in the world.
Whilst these examples illustrate some of the difficulties associated with safeguarding nuclear materials – even under the auspices of the Additional Protocol – it is important to understand that these difficulties can be greatly minimized through improved safeguards processes, increased scrutiny, and more staff. Likewise, the IAEA’s regular monitoring capacity can be bolstered significantly by implementing real-time surveillance technologies throughout all declared facilities. Naturally though, these fixes come with significant costs for the IAEA.
Whilst the IAEA has taken on more and more responsibility in recent years, its activities have remained underfunded. Hence it should be no surprise that there have been problems in monitoring nuclear activities worldwide. 2003 finally saw the end of a decade of zero budget growth for the agency. However, increases since 2003 have been minimal, prompting Mohamed ElBaradei to state in 2007 that the “dichotomy between increased high priority activities and inadequate funding, if continued, will lead to the failure of critical IAEA functions.”
Few countries seem to have taken any notice. In August 2009, the IAEA’s Board of Governors did vote for a rare budget increase for 2010, but this marked only a 5.4 percent increase (2.7 per cent in real terms) compared to the 2009 budget, falling well short of the 11 per cent sought by Mohamed ElBaradei at the time. Of this, only $40 million is currently dedicated to global nuclear safety and security, roughly what NBC bosses are paying to secure the departure of Conan O’Brien from ‘The Tonight Show.’
As more and more countries develop civilian nuclear power programs, the burden on the IAEA will continue to increase. Currently the funding system is based on a UN formula that links a country’s GDP to its expected level of contribution. Consequently, a state with an extensive nuclear industry can, at the moment, end up paying less than a state with little or no nuclear industry. Whilst this system is supplemented by additional donations (for example, the Obama administration’s FY 2011 budget request includes a voluntary contribution to the IAEA of $79.5 million, an increase of nearly $15 million over what was requested last year), the IAEA should not be forced to rely on voluntary contributions for additional funding.
Given the threats posed by the diversion or theft of highly enriched uranium and/or weapons-grade plutonium, it is essential that the global community take heed of the IAEA’s budget more seriously. That it is deemed as worthy an investment as getting rid of Conan O’Brien is not a laughing matter!