Vienna — At the heart of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency here are some 150 inspectors who fly around the world checking up on nuclear plants. Their mission is to try to find out whether any fissionable material might be missing, on the assumption that missing material might have been diverted to use in a nuclear bomb.
They unload and check film in preset surveillance cameras. They check agency seals and go through records to see that fuel rods and other materials are accounted for.
The agency secretariat has been able to state that it has found no discrepancies to indicate diversion -- except in 1981 and 1982.
In those years the board of governors was told that adequate verification could not be carried out in one specific case. The "case" was not named, but everyone knew that it was Pakistan's reactor outside Karachi.
A recent agreement with Pakistan means the IAEA will again this year give a full assurance of no diversions of nuclear materials. Yet the agency's team of inspectors has been under fire.
Israel openly doubted its effectiveness by bombing the Iraqi reactor near Baghdad in June 1981 to stop what it said was a diversion of fissionable material for a bomb program.
A former inspector alleged shortcomings in inspection procedures. Inspectors cannot make surprise visits, for instance, but must schedule every trip well in advance, and they depend on their hosts' records, which might be false.
Countries can reject individual inspectors, such as individuals of Soviet or East European origin.
The safeguards budget was only $25.7 million in 1982. It was $19.8 million in 1981 and $18.3 million the year before. In 1975 it was a mere $5 million, so there has been growth.
The agency had only 134 inspectors to cover the world in 1982, four more than in 1981 (and 18 more than in 1980). This means that much of the inspection work called for under IAEA agreements with individual countries simply cannot be carried out.
Only 41 percent of the inspection work could be performed in 1980, 50 percent in 1981, and 60 percent last year. Officials warn these figures are imprecise.
It takes a year to train an inspector properly. The normal tour of duty at Vienna headquarters is only two years. The best inspectors from the more advanced countries tend to go back home after that.
In contrast, the Euratom agency has as many inspectors for Western Europe alone, and they can make surprise visits. Euratom keeps its inspectors longer and promotes them.
"Of course," an IAEA expert points out, "what we are doing is new in world history -- inspecting installations on the sovereign soil of other countries. There are bound to be troubles at first.
"It's remarkable that 98 percent of all nuclear installations in the world are under inspection.
"But we could do with more inspectors, more money, and a better system of ensuring that more time is spend on the job and less on travel and evaluation here at headquarters in Vienna."