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AAAS Briefing: U.N. Watchdog Must Bolster Civilian Nuclear Safeguards
The nuclear watchdog for the United Nations urgently needs to strengthen its tools and procedures for overseeing peaceful uses of the atom as many nations consider building commercial power reactors for the first time, two nonproliferation specialists told a 25 March AAAS briefing.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, monitors all aspects of civilian nuclear programs in participating nations, including the manufacture and use of reactor fuel, with a goal of preventing diversion or theft of nuclear materials to make weapons.
But Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, and Charles Ferguson, a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, cited gaps and shortcomings in the IAEA safeguards system that raise questions about the agency's ability to cope with a world that may soon see many more nuclear facilities.
Sokolski's center conducted a two-year study on IAEA safeguards. The resulting book, "Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom," was published in February and released at the Capitol Hill briefing, which was organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. Ferguson, who has an article on "Strengthening Nuclear Safeguards" in the Spring, 2008 issue of Issues in Science and Technology, was a discussant at the briefing.
"There's no perfect safeguards system," Ferguson said. But the IAEA system, he said, "needs to be greatly improved." He and Sokolski said the agency, its resources already stretched, must improve its inspection procedures, reconsider what can be effectively safeguarded and update its yardsticks for what it considers militarily significant amounts of nuclear material. The two spoke at the Capitol Hill briefing organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
Sokolski said the expansion of commercial nuclear facilities could be a pacing event for future proliferation concerns. Since 2006, at least 18 states have announced plans to build large civilian nuclear reactors for the first time. Among them are states in the volatile Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to the nuclear wannabes, 31 countries already operate large civilian power reactors and some have plans for more.
Analysts caution that some of the expressed interest in new power plants may not materialize, given the costs involved. And the some of the Middle East countries may be jockeying to bring pressure on Iran not to pursue its nuclear ambitions. Still, with concern about greenhouse emissions from fossil-fueled power plants also a factor, a major growth in the number of civilian nuclear facilities worldwide is a real possibility.
During operation of a large commercial reactor, substantial amounts of near weapons-grade plutonium accumulates in the uranium fuel rods. A typical light-water reactor can produce enough plutonium in its first year of operation to make 50 crude nuclear bombs, Sokolski said.
By diverting some of the spent fuel rods to a plant that can extract the plutonium, a determined nation could use an ostensibly civilian nuclear program to pursue military goals. A small, simple reprocessing plant is not beyond the capability of a determined state, Sokolski said, and could produce enough material for a bomb in as little as 10 days after startup.
Fresh uranium reactor fuel also is a worry, he said. Several tons of low-enriched uranium fuels rods are delivered to a typical power reactor every 12 to 18 months. The pellets in the fuel rods, if diverted, could be crushed, heated, combined with fluorine gas and—in a large array of centrifuges like those Iran has been acquiring—converted into highly enriched, weapons-grade material in as little as eight weeks, Sokolski said.
While safeguards technologies cannot prevent proliferation, they can impose barriers that make diversion of materials more difficult. But Sokolski argues IAEA has had difficulty maintaining adequate continuity of inspections over fresh and spent fuel rods, doesn't have the resources to reliably find covert fuel making plants, and can't account for all of the weapons-usable material at declared fuel making plants.
Among the problems cited by Sokoloski: Nearly 800 of the IAEA's 1,200 surveillance cameras—placed in nuclear facilities around the globe to monitor any suspicious activity—are unable to provide real-time video feeds to the agency headquarters in Vienna.
A May 2005 internal agency review found that there had been 12 occasions during the previous six years in which the lights at a facility had been out for more than 30 hours. While the incidents undoubtedly were due to power blackouts, Sokoloski warned against complacency. "You don't want to become too smug about this," he said. Any time the IAEA's surveillance cameras are blinded, there are opportunities for mischief.
For the majority of the agency's cameras, the tapes are retrieved for review every three months or so, although Sokolski said the IAEA—with its inspection staff stretched thin—has been talking about changing the interval to once a year. It would help to increase the number of cameras that can automatically transmit images back to IAEA in near real-time, he said. That costs money and requires the assent of the reactor operators, however. Many of the remote cameras also depend on Internet connections that can be interrupted.
Monitoring issues are even more challenging at nuclear fuel fabrication and fuel making plants—facilities that are the easiest from which to divert nuclear fuel. The number of such plants has grown from a handful to 65 during the last two decades. Sokolski says IAEA safeguards have not performed well at nuclear fuel plants in Europe and Japan, where "material unaccounted for" has amounted to many kilograms worth of weapons-usable plutonium. The problems usually can be traced to measurement uncertainties as well as material stuck in piping or unavoidably included in some of the waste streams from the plant.
"It doesn't mean it went to some guy with a ski mask," Sokolski said, but "if you don't know what you are making, really, you don't really know when to blow the whistle that you've got a problem."
Sokoloski said the IAEA also can't reliably find covert fuel making plants. It does not currently have the funds for wide-area surveillance teams that could do sudden inspections and environmental monitoring to seek out suspect facilities.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the agency's board of governors last year that IAEA's financial situation had become critical and noted, in particular, the need to upgrade the agency's aged laboratory facilities. And while the agency's safeguards budget roughly doubled from 1984 to 2004, the amount of plutonium and highly enriched uranium to be monitored and inspected rose six-fold.
Sokolski and Ferguson agreed that the IAEA will need more money to improve its safeguards technologies and handle inspection requirements at facilities, such as fuel- making plants that pose bigger challenges than the norm.
Assessments of member states have not covered the agency's safeguard costs, and it has relied on supplemental voluntary contributions, notably from the United States (which now pays for about 35 percent of the agency's safeguards budget.) Sokolski suggested the imposition of user fees or surcharges on utilities whose facilities are being inspected. He also said the IAEA could become more efficient by making a realistic assessment of what it can safeguard—that is, detect suspicious activity early enough to prevent a diversion --and what it can probably monitor only after-the-fact (such as material unaccounted for at a fuel-making plant.)
Personnel issues also have been a growing source of concern, Ferguson said. The safeguards system requires exceptionally competent scientists and engineers. But IAEA's rules require people to rotate from job to job every seven years and retire by age 62. That limits the ability to attract and keep top notch technical people, he said. A study two years ago found that 30 out of the IAEA's senior safeguards staff were expected to retire by 2011.
The IAEA also needs more access to information that could reveal nuclear black markets, Ferguson said. He said the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had penetrated the illicit market by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan to sell designs, materials and equipment that could be used to build nuclear weapons. But the IAEA was kept in the dark about Khan's activities for years, he said.
Sokolski also urged IAEA to reduce its estimates of how much nuclear material is needed to make a bomb and how much time is required to convert various material into bombs. The IAEA says 8 kilograms of plutonium or 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium are the "significant quantities" required for a nuclear bomb. But Sokoloski's study says those quantities are too high by anywhere from 25 % to 800 %, depending on the type of weapon, yield and sophistication of the bomb maker. The "significant quantity" of plutonium, the study says, could be as little as 3 kilograms for a bomb with a yield of 20 kilotons (roughly the same yield as the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki during World War II.) The study also said that IAEA needs to revise its "timeliness detections goals" to account for the quicker conversion times once material is diverted.
With the possible expansion of commercial nuclear activities around the globe looming, Sokolski made a plea for economic common sense. States should not rush to subsidize construction of nuclear plants that are not competitive. Nuclear power should be considered to be peaceful and beneficial by the IAEA only if it makes as much economic sense as non-nuclear alternatives, Sokolski said. "If it costs too much, don't pay it," he said.
2 April 2008