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Economy & Energy
No 38: June-July 2003 
ISSN 1518-2932

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e&e No 38

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The  New  Economy

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Dollar Exchange Rate and Commercial Balance

Are the New Nuclear Safeguards Safe?

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Are the New Nuclear Safeguards Safe?

Carlos Feu Alvim

Author’s Note

During more than ten years as Secretary of ABACC I have closely watched the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency –IAEA. I greatly respect the competence of the directors and inspectors of this organization. Furthermore, in the recent episode of Iraq inspections its present general director El Baradei and the former one Hans Blix (head of the UN inspectors) have confirmed my impression regarding the honesty and competence of the direction of this United Nations organization. My remarks here concerning the new safeguards system do not cast any doubt about the acknowledged competence of the IAEA.  

 Additional Protocol and Integrated Nuclear Safeguards: Stronger or weaker Safeguards?

 The non-declared nuclear activities  of Iraq and North Korea had the merit of bringing again to mind the political aim of nuclear safeguards that was to assure the only peaceful use of nuclear energy or to prevent proliferation. The practice of safeguards had been transformed into a bureaucratic application of accounting principles and the verification was based on strict criteria. The use of declared material  for peaceful applications only is verified in declared installations. It was understood that any deviation would involve the  misuse of equipment or declared nuclear material.

 Actually, the deviations found regarding North Korea consisted of (at least in the initial phase) deviations of the expected type (irradiation of non-declared material in a declared reactor). Even though the inconsistency found by the IAEA did not give quantitative information, it was of the type expected and could be detected. In the case of Iraq, after the first USA x Iraq war, an attempt  was found to establish an independent line of nuclear material production (via enrichment) that the strict application of old safeguards would not have detected. In both cases, the first objective was to obtain the nuclear material.

With the principle of being concerned with non-declared materials and installations acknowledged by the IAEA’s Board of Governors, it was possible within the previous legal framework to carry out verifications aiming at assuring the non-existence of non-declared activities and materials.

  It became clear that it was necessary to assure an initial inventory and to follow up its evolution in the following years with all the accounting. Within the new objectives, the means and sources of information were amplified within the previous legal mandate.

  For some new activities, the need of an Additional Protocol was acknowledged, which the countries with comprehensive safeguards agreements should sign. In the approved protocol model the information to be supplied was amplified and the right of access was reinforced, furthermore including non-declared sites.

 From each country a larger control of correlated and nuclear activities as well as of equipment and material considered sensitive was required. This control should be also carried out over imports and exports.

Theoretically, nuclear safeguards were very much reinforced. In practice, modifications that are being adopted give me doubts regarding their efficiency in several aspects.  

 Dispersion of Efforts

 The new measures were based on rather rational premises a zero growth budget. Safeguards should be improved and waste should be avoided. Since a general idea of the activities in a country would be known, certain quantitative objectives could be loosened, which is rather rational. The range of equipment and materials to be controlled was considerably increased. The very beginning and end of safeguards in the nuclear fuel cycle was modified, amplifying its scope.

My doubt rests on the efficiency of this approach. By amplifying the range of data, installations, equipment and material to be controlled, a dispersion of efforts and loss of efficiency is inevitable.

 Previous safeguards concentrated on nuclear material, which has the advantage of  “crying” in order to be detected by emitting radiations that are difficult to hide. How lucky the repression of narcotics traffic would be if narcotics would have the same characteristics. The nuclear materials searched for are enriched uranium, Pu and eventually U233 that don’t exist in nature. In order to ease the repression of trafficking, the ore and the sub-products keep in their characteristics and impurities true “certificates of origin”.

Dissemination of Proliferation Information

 On the other hand, the non-proliferation activities have aspects that are in contradiction with the non-proliferation purpose. Actually, in order to detect signs of proliferation in equipment and installations the ideal inspector should know the proliferation path. One of the difficulties facing the task of building an artifact in countries or institutions that do not know deeply the nuclear subject is actually to know this path. Even to buy information it is necessary to identify who really knows the path.

 The technique of those who develop artifacts (or other controlled technologies) to prevent  theft is actually to compartmentalize information and prevent one person from having a general view of the process. At present, description of the critical path is supplied to tens of people who attend courses given by people from nuclear-weapon states who presumably know this path. Potential suppliers of information become known and eventually the number people who know them increases.

A list of characteristics (and suppliers) of equipment necessary to proliferation was disseminated. There are courses also for tens of people in order to learn how to identify equipment. Previously, it was a suspicious activity to search the critical path, to look for information about nuclear installations, to try to obtain information about sensitive equipment. Now they are a legitimate task of safeguards.

Risk of Terrorism

 Concern about terrorism has increased in the last years. Information such as the detailed site localization – including the use of GPS – of each nuclear unit or one related to the nuclear fuel cycle were concentrated in the archives of the IAEA. In many cases photos of each site, maps and blueprints are available to tens of people.

Without the intention of suspecting any individual, one should consider that inspectors and members of international inspection agencies are people from different nationalities, whose previous life is not well known and who maintain occasional links with domestic organs. These people, into a greater or lesser degree, learn this information.

Within the activities related with the new safeguards not only are visits to and inspections of sensitive installations of the nuclear fuel cycle provided but also visits to more sensitive activities that are precursors of the cycle and of equipment fabrication are permitted.

 In order to manage information, there was established in the IAEA the equivalent of an international intelligence agency in order to analyze and collect information about member countries. Obviously, unless one can previously identify the suspect countries, this intelligence group was born with an intrinsic incoherence regarding objective. Besides that, one can doubt the efficiency of an intelligence organism where the agents have a “spy identification card”.

 Implosion of the Regional Agencies

From my point of view, the Protocol was disastrous for the regional safeguard organizations that run the risk of implosion. Actually, their role was reduced with the new protocol since the powers of the national and international authorities were reinforced. In the case of the national agencies, this is due to the fact that the country must be responsible since it can be punished; in the case of the international one, its activity became larger and intrusive. The mistrust between neighbors (that drove and guaranteed the efficiency of the regional agency) prevents in practice more intrusive verifications.

 The concept of verification  by countries made practically useless the verification of activities in countries that already proliferate as it was carried out in the European Union. This increases the economic inequalities and can increase the risk of deviations by private groups. It is a contradiction: an industry that becomes regional and tends to have a multi-national control has returned to national control.


 This article is provocative on purpose; it tries to rekindle a reflection on the present direction of nuclear safeguards. I present concerns that I have since the beginning of this process and that my previous function – Secretary (or Deputy Secretary) of ABACC – made it difficult to manifest openly. Personally I think that the solution rests on concentrating efforts on nuclear materials. After all, a nuclear artifact is not built without having  highly specified nuclear material years in advance.


Some Acronyms:

ABACC: Brazilian - Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Material (Agência Brasileiro-Argentina de Contabilidade e Controle de Materiais Nucleares in Portuguese)

IAEA: International Atomic Energy Agency

GPS - Global Positioning System - It informs the geographic coordinates of a site.

Pu – Plutonium - fissile element, resulting, in this case, from the absorption of a neutron by an atom of U238 (more abundant and non- fissile uranium isotope).

U233 – Uranium fissile isotope derived from the use of thorium in reactors.

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Tuesday, 11 November 2008

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