Do Nuclear Safeguards Work?


In the discussion about possible uranium sales to India we hear a lot about safeguards. What does this term mean? Who defines the safeguards and who applies them?

All 190 countries that have signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Nuclear accept safeguards applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These are supposed to prevent the diversion of nuclear material from reactors to weapons development.

Do these safeguards work? The 1977 Fox Report which emerged from the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry is the foundation for current policy on uranium mining in Australia. After analysing the international safeguard system and the actual control Australia has over uranium that has left our shores, the Fox Report admitted that safeguards offer only "the illusion of protection".

There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, safeguards rely on a state disclosing information to the IAEA and providing access to facilities. They are directed primarily to declared facilities.

Nuclear weapon states are not obliged to open up their facilities but can do so on a voluntary basis only. Special inspections undertaken to resolve ambiguities must usually first gain cooperation of the inspected state. States also have the right to reject particular inspectors designated for their country by the IAEA. Inspection schedules are normally set for the convenience of the operator.

Safeguards do not apply to material in mining or ore processing activities. International control of nuclear material destined for non-explosive military purposes is not required for IAEA safeguards adopted for the NPT. This is a dangerous loophole because enriched uranium used for the propulsion of ships, especially submarines is often the same as that used in nuclear weapons.

Currently the safeguards system comprises:

• Record keeping of nuclear materials entering and leaving nuclear facilities, known as materials accounting exercises or audited paperwork;

Inspections: Defined schedule routine inspections, which under the Additional Protocol include inspections with only 2 hours notice;

Seals: When visiting nuclear facilities, inspectors place seals on certain storage bins of waste and other materials to contain the materials. Inspectors comes back and checks that the seals are still in place from time to time;

Cameras can be placed at facilities to monitor the goings on;

Environmental sampling takes place, of air and swipes of dust in nuclear facilities, which can detect the presence of bomb grade fuel.

The IAEA safeguards system must be capable of detecting a "significant quantity" of missing plutonium or highly enriched uranium to give a "timely warning".

A "timely warning" is set at seven days. A "significant quantity" of plutonium is defined as eight kilograms, and of highly enriched uranium 15 kilograms, even though it is recognised that the amount required to make an effective nuclear explosion today is four kilograms.

We know from decades of experience that commercial-scale bulk handling facilities (such as enrichment or reprocessing plants) simply cannot provide "timely warning" of a diversion of a "significant quantity".

The IAEA guidelines call for a detection probability rate of 90 per cent to 95 per cent and a false-alarm probability rate of less than 5 per cent. These are extremely ambitious targets.

The IAEA reports reveal that safeguards almost never meet the technical objectives of the Agency. Indeed, the Agency has patchy and sometimes hostile access to facilities and cooperation with governments. It often has to make repeated public calls, over years, for basic improvements and disclosures of information.

It’s not only the intransigence of states that impedes the monitoring of safeguards. The IAEA has serious resouce limitations. With a staff capacity equivalent to the Vienna police force, the IAEA is expected to visit, audit, take dust and air samples at thousands upon thousands of nuclear facilities in 178 states.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.