Recent revelations about the advanced state of the Iranian nuclear program underscore certain weaknesses of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that enable countries pursuing nuclear-weapon programs to evade detection. Every non-nuclear-weapon state that is a member of the NPT must negotiate a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), placing its nuclear program under IAEA safeguards. This fact sheet summarizes the scope of the existing Safeguards Agreement and explores how the Additional Protocol addresses its limitations. The Safeguards Agreement concentrates largely on nuclear fissionable material, while the Additional Protocol focuses far more broadly, and inclusively, on all nuclear fuel cycle related activities.
The Safeguards Agreement:
- Facilities Under the Original Safeguards Agreement
Countries are not obliged to declare all nuclear facilities or equipment per se. A state is only required to declare its nuclear facilities and their designs 180 days before introducing nuclear material into them. Theoretically, a country could secretly acquire full uranium enrichment facilities without breaching its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement, as long as it does not introduce uranium into these facilities. This issue has been at the center of the debate over Iran's facilities at Natanz and Kalaye. The IAEA Board of Governors issued a directive in 1992 urging members to amend their treaties to include an obligation to declare facilities the moment governments decide to build them. Several countries, however, have not done so. Iran, for example, only acceded to this directive in February 2003 and, therefore, did not fall under its purview prior to this date.
Another limitation of the Safeguards Agreement relates to imports of technology and equipment. Article III of the NPT prohibits the export of "equipment or material especially designed for the processing, use or production of nuclear material to any non-nuclear-weapon State for peaceful purposes," unless that material shall be placed under safeguards. It does not require the importing country to declare its purchase of nuclear fuel cycle related equipment from foreign suppliers. Iran's clandestine acquisition of foreign centrifuge components to equip huge uranium enrichment facilities, such as the one at Natanz, did not contravene the Safeguards Agreement.
- Local Production
Finally, the Safeguards Agreement does not require declaration of heavy water facilities, nor does it oblige members to report the annual production levels of local uranium mining.
- The Additional Protocol
The Additional Protocol significantly strengthens the safeguards regime. It focuses on all aspects of nuclear fuel cycle related technology and activity.
- New Reporting Requirements
The protocol requires signatories to "declare the location of nuclear fuel cycle related research and development activities, not involving the use of nuclear material." Members must notify the IAEA of their intention to construct nuclear facilities the moment they decide to do so and should indicate their general plans regarding nuclear development for the succeeding ten years. Countries are obliged to report the location, production capacity and current annual production of uranium mines, uranium concentration plants and thorium concentration plants.
- Enhanced Inspections Authority
The IAEA can demand information relating to nuclear fuel cycle related activities that are "carried out anywhere in [the country] but which are not funded, specifically authorized or controlled by, or carried out on behalf of" the signatory. The IAEA has the authority to perform environmental sampling, use radiation detecting and measurement devices to determine uranium enrichment, and conduct surprise inspections with as little as two hours notice.
The Safeguards Agreement's main drawback is that it does not require full and timely disclosure of all nuclear activities by its members. A country can legally adhere to the Safeguards Agreement, but still effectively subvert its purpose. The Additional Protocol, on the other hand, is far more stringent. Had Iran been a signatory to the protocol, it would have been obliged to disclose the construction of its uranium enrichment facilities at a much earlier date and IAEA inspectors would have been able to inspect all aspects of the facilities from the beginning. The protocol ensures transparency by obliging members to report all activities linked to their nuclear programs. However, the protocol does not prohibit the construction of facilities that may be turned to nuclear weapon related activities at a later time. Some argue that the Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to witness the development of an existential nuclear-weapon capability without providing it with the means to impede this process. Nonetheless, the enhanced knowledge that the Additional Protocol provides protects the world from a Natanz-like surprise, permitting increased vigilance against aspiring nuclear-weapon states.
Samia Amin is a junior fellow with the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She recently graduated from Middlebury College.