Vienna: Underfunded and under-equipped, the UN atomic watchdog is losing ground in its mission to uncover abuses of nuclear know-how for bombmaking, a two-year study by a US think tank has revealed.
The efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to nip bomb threats in the bud suffered a big defeat in North Korea and have been complicated in Iran by that nation’s lack of transparency, although Tehran pledged last week to resolve questions.
And it looks like IAEA’s task will get more formidable in the coming years as nine out of 15 states seeking to join the current nuclear energy club of more than 30 nations are in volatile West Asia, hedging their security bets for fear Iran is on course to a bomb. “IAEA is falling behind in achieving its (nuclear) material accountancy mission,” concluded a report by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre (NPEC) in Washington, D.C. “It risks slipping further unless members of the (35-nation) IAEA board take remedial actions in the next 2-5 years.”
Serious flaws had cropped up in IAEA’s methods of monitoring and verification meant to certify that no nuclear materials or activities are being diverted to weaponization banned by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPEC said.
Amounts of potentially bomb-grade nuclear material —highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium separated from it—that goes unaccounted for is increasing much faster than funds at hand for safeguarding it, the study found.
“IAEA is unable to provide timely warning of diversions from nuclear fuel-making plants,” the study reported.
Further, IAEA’s original estimates for how much nuclear material is needed to make one bomb, and how long it could take to convert HEU or plutonium into explosives, were set in the 1970s and were anywhere from 25-800% too high.
Chronic cash shortages had handicapped the IAEA with insufficient equipment and antiquated laboratories that test environmental samples taken from sites of concern.
“Only about a third of the nuclear facilities, where the IAEA has remote sensors, have near real-time connectivity with Vienna (IAEA headquarters), and almost all these facilities are in countries of minimal proliferation risk,” the report said. “Most of the ... sensors do not allow the IAEA to know day to day if these systems are on ... Over the past six years, the agency learned of camera ‘blackouts´ that lasted for more than 30 hours on 12 occasions.”
The study also noted a complaint made by IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei at a July IAEA board meeting that the agency’s safeguards division was so underfunded it had to rely on additional voluntary contributions.
A possible source of finance could be a user fee paid for by each safeguarded nuclear operator, the report said.
IAEA officials declined comment on the NPEC study.
In July, ElBaradei warned IAEA’s safeguards system “is being eroded over time” because of lack of funds and overtaxed and sometimes obsolete equipment.