Resource struggles

On Wednesday, IAEA Safeguards Symposium participants attending the morning panel discussion on ‘Building Support for the Safeguards Mission’ heard the views of, among others, Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre – a non-profit organisation that seeks to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues – and author of the 2008 book Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom.

One of the critical problems facing the Agency, in Mr Sokolski’s view, is that the demand for work placed on the Agency is continually increasing while resources are staying relatively flat. And those resources, he said, represent one of the most important measures of support for the IAEA’s work. Without adequate resources, he argued, how can the IAEA be expected to conduct itself in a non-discriminatory manner? Inadequate resources mean that what is available must by necessity be directed toward states under intensive investigation, such as Iran. Inadequate resources may even prevent the adoption of new or novel techniques because they cost too much to get up and running.

In his address, Mr Sokolski proposed three potential solutions to the present state of affairs. First, he said, the Agency should look to increase the scope and transparency of internal cost assessments of its safeguards and verification obligations. Getting this information out in the open could help in garnering support among member states for increases to its safeguards budget. Second, the Agency should look again at an old idea to introduce a ‘user fee’ for its safeguards activities, whereby those countries requiring the most verification and producing the most nuclear power would pay the most. Third, and most controversially of all perhaps, the Agency should start to play down expectations of what it can actually achieve. The IAEA cannot safeguard everything it claims to be able to safeguard, Mr Sokolski argued, but in his view there is not enough candidness from Agency officials about their organisation’s own limitations. On which point, it is time to ask, he suggested, whether the IAEA can meet its own ‘timely detection’ of diversion goals – and whether those goals are even sufficient themselves.

Moderating the discussion, John Carlson – former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office and now, by his own words, a ‘have laptop, will travel’ consultant – gave a somewhat depressing ‘glass half-empty’ assessment of the present state of the safeguards system also. The introduction of the Additional Protocol in 1997 marked the culmination of a period of broad consensus in support of the safeguards mission and of strengthening the system, he said. But that strong consensus seems to have dissipated today, with a number of states – and Mr Carlson named no names – now seemingly viewing safeguards more as an imposition than a common good. There is a need, he said, for greater ‘outreach’ efforts on the part of the Agency and concerned member states to revitalise interest in the achievement of a robust safeguards system and, hopefully by doing that, reverse the current trend.

Mr Sokolski’s assessment is somewhat off the mark. The IAEA can indeed safeguard most of the things it claim it can safeguard, and presents candid statistical data on how it meets its timeliness criteria every year (in the unnecessarily restricted ‘Safeguards Implementation Report’). It is also where aware of the system’s shortcomings. In fact, one purpose of the safeguards symposium is to gather thoughts on how to address these. If anything, Mr Sokolski’s final remark gives strength to the argument of many that the Safeguards Implementation Report should yet again be put on general release.

David Cliff, Vienna