The IAEA and nuclear disarmament

Thursday afternoon saw VERTIC’s executive director, Andreas Persbo, present to the IAEA Safeguards Symposium on the main themes and conclusions of VERTIC’s latest report: ‘Verifying Warhead Dismantlement: Past, present, future’. The report (available for download on the VERTIC website) is built around VERTIC’s three-year experience as an independent observer to the UK-Norway Initiative on warhead dismantlement verification – an initiative that brought together, for the first time, a nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon state to investigate the myriad issues involved in dismantling nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner.

Involving non-nuclear-weapon states in dismantlement verification is especially problematic as it risks breaching the NPT’s perfectly-sensible ban on the sharing or transfer of proliferative material between those with nuclear weapons and those without. And that is a restriction that logically applies to international organisations – who by their very nature comprise of personnel from outside the NPT-recognised nuclear five – such as the IAEA also.

On which point, before Mr Persbo’s address the Symposium heard from the Norwegian Radiological Protection Agency’s Ole Reistad – a key figure in planning and execution of the UK-Norway Initiative – on ‘the role of the IAEA in multilateral nuclear disarmament verification.’ While the disarmament role for the IAEA is not pronounced in the organisation’s statute, Article III.A.5 of the document does give the Agency the right to apply safeguards ‘to any bilateral or multilateral arrangement, or at the request of a state, to any of that state’s activities in the field of atomic energy,’ Dr Reistad pointed out.

Former Agency official Tom Shea, who also spoke this afternoon, offered further evidence of statutory scope for disarmament by highlighting in his address Article III.B.1 of the IAEA Statute, which says that the Agency shall conduct its activities in accordance with UN policies ‘furthering the establishment of safeguarded worldwide disarmament and in conformity with any international agreements entered into pursuant to such policies’

What’s more, Mr Reistad argued, the Agency has past experience both in the verification of weaponization activities (relevant to disarmament in terms of the secrecy concerns necessarily similar to both), disarmament verification research (as part of the 1996-2002 Trilateral Initiative) and in the verification of disarmament itself (in South Africa in the 1990s). Furthermore, the IAEA is also tasked with overseeing the disposition of 68 tons of surplus US and Russian weapons-grade plutonium as part of the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA). Implementation of the PMDA, stalled for a decade over Russian concerns regarding the kind of disposition activities to be used (see Trust & Verify 130), is expected to begin by 2018, although verification arrangements have yet to be finalised.

In sum, the Agency is well-equipped to engage with verification activities beyond safeguards and non-proliferation, Dr Reistad argued, but there needs to be further efforts to develop and, where necessary, clarify the legal and political aspects of any such ‘other’ activities, i.e. disarmament, if the subject is to become a more mainstream part of its work.

And granting the IAEA the explicit right to verify the dismantlement of nuclear weapons as part of a future disarmament regime would not set a new precedent, said Mr Persbo, drawing the attention of the audience to the 1996 Treaty of Pelindaba – which established the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, and which grants the Agency the specific right ‘to verify the processes of dismantling and destruction’ of any nuclear weapons within the zone, ‘as well as the destruction or conversion of the facilities for their production.’

David Cliff, Vienna