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What are Nuclear Safeguards?

The existence of nuclear weapons is a continuous threat for the world.

It is of fundamental importance for the international security to avoid new States acquiring nuclear weapons. This is the basis for the Non-proliferation Regime, whose main pillar is the Non-Proliferation Treaty. International nuclear safeguards applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the main tool of the Non-proliferation Regime. 

The Safeguards System

The IAEA was created in 1957 to apply safeguards to declared nuclear materials and facilities. It got more relevance and responsibilities since 1970 when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) went into effect. The IAEA Department of Safeguards oversees the implementation of safeguards throughout the world. The safeguards system establishes legally binding agreements between States and the IAEA pursuant to the commitments made under international and regional nonproliferation agreements.

The political objective of safeguards is to assure that the States are complying with their agreement commitments. The technical objectives are to detect the timely diversion of declared nuclear materials, to confirm the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and facilities, and to confirm that the declared facilities are operating as declared.

Unlike the nuclear security framework, nuclear safeguards has a mandatory international commitment, which the signatory parties have to accomplish.

The balance of power and proliferation of organized non-state groups and their ability to cause harm has transformed the needs for nuclear security policy, infrastructure and planning of several nations. The security planning has to be adaptive and global in nature to respond to a rapidly changing environment.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has the primary responsibility, through inspection and verification, of ensuring that the signatory countries of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) uphold the safeguards arrangements.

Strengthening the Safeguards

The discovery of a clandestine nuclear weapons program in Iraq on early 90s demonstrated the weakness of the safeguards then applied under the NPT type agreement. This led the international community to empower the IAEA with expanded legal mandate and more verification tools, which have been consolidated in the document Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement. The Additional Protocol adopted by IAEA in 1997 allows the agency to detect undeclared nuclear activities (civilian and non-civilian). For this purpose the IAEA can request from a State additional information on nuclear facilities and research facilities, and perform complementary accesses to the facilities, their sites, and in case of suspicious to any place in the State. The IAEA can deploy environmental sampling and remote sensing techniques to detect illicit activities. This strengthens the safeguards system further.

The traditional risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons material and technology remains a concern. However, the event of 9/11 and other recent events orchestrated by non-state actors has elevated the potential risk of non-state actors using a “loose nuke," an improvised nuclear device (IND) or a radiological dispersal device (RDD) as a weapon of mass destruction/disruption (WMD). The new paradigm, highlighted by the A. Q. Khan's clandestine network activities, requires capabilities to safeguard and secure materials and facilities in a wider range of states, blurs the traditional borders between weapons states and advanced fuel cycle states. The proliferation problems associated with WMD in North Korea, Iran and Syria currently demonstrate the seriousness of the potential threat.