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Nuke watch: The game's getting tougher

The UN watchdog hosted a major symposium this week on enhancing nuclear safeguards and verification.

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Iran, for example, signed the additional protocol in 2003, claiming it would act as if it were ratified already and allow the IAEA unfettered access. But Tehran renounced the protocol a year ago. When ElBaradei reported Aug. 31 that the IAEA "remains unable to make further progress in its efforts to verify the correctness and completeness of Iran's declarations with a view to confirming the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program," he was essentially signaling that his agency had hit a wall in terms of what it could do. It was then up to the UN Security Council to decide how to proceed.

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Iran continues to contend that it "cooperates" with IAEA inspectors, referring to inspection of declared sites only. "It's a clever but deceitful argument," says Shannon Kile, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "The safeguards are based on cooperation, trust, and assumed good intentions. But if the trusts break down, it becomes more problematic."

North Korea is a more extreme case.

The country built its nuclear program as a law-abiding NPT member, under the guise of civilian purposes – i.e. energy. All nuclear activities are essentially dual-use – you can enrich uranium to a low level good enough for nuclear power, or continue with enrichment until it's weapon-grade. In 1993, Pyongyang pulled out of the NPT – its pursuit culminated with the nuclear test earlier this month. Still, there are other ways to strengthen the IAEA's hand in rooting out clandestine activities.

Experts at the symposium this week discussed possibly greater access to, say, research-and-development (R&D) facilities. Producing highly enriched nuclear fuel is the great leap toward an atomic bomb, but the material must also be "weaponized." Designing takes place in R&D, but IAEA inspectors are currently denied the authority to access these labs, the scientists and engineers who work there, and their computers.

In recent years the agency has placed more emphasis on analyzing information, creating a special unit to determine compliance or deception.

The agency does not gather its own intelligence, through spies or wiretapping, but does accept reports from member states that may have been gathered through espionage. It also combs through material available in the public domain and media reports, and purchases commercially produced satellite imagery.

Generating satellite imagery in-house is one function for which the IAEA seeks more funds, as is state-of-the-art technology to analyze environmental samples in its own laboratories. One random swipe of a cotton swab can reveal tiny particles of radiation.

"And if you find them where they shouldn't be, you've got very good evidence of a clandestine program," says Mr. Acton. Despite all the proposals, though, no approach is foolproof.

"In the future, a determined nuclear proliferator is going to be very difficult to track down and deter," says Mr. Kile. Most urgently needed, says Mr. Sokolsky, is for the IAEA and its member states to simply keep countries on a shorter leash.

"North Korea and Iran ought to be wake-up calls that we need to act on first indication, of cheating or things a country ought to be more open about, and take firmer action against any infraction," says Sokolsky, who today is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "The IAEA can help us with those first indications. We can't wait until we have proof of a bomb – then it's too late."