While international attention is focused on the nuclear challenge posed by North Korea and Iran, the world's top nuclear watchdog warned this week that the situation could be much worse in the future.
"Another 20 to 30 states" could one day "have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short span of time," said Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In the fine print is a sobering fact: If any nation were bent on secretly pursuing such weapons, there's no guarantee the IAEA would detect it.
"Can they prove it 100 percent? No, because you can't prove a negative – that a country doesn't have weapons," says James Acton, a researcher at the Verification Research, Training and Information Center in London. "All they can do is provide 'credible assurance' that there aren't secret nuclear activities."
But given the IAEA's record of being deceived by Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, the organization has sometimes had trouble establishing the credibility of such assurances in recent years – most notably in the face of American claims in 2002-03 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Though the US failure to find WMD seemed to vindicate earlier IAEA conclusions, the 500 top industry experts gathered in Vienna this week for a major symposium on enhancing nuclear safeguards and verification seem to agree that there's plenty of room for improvement.
Since its inception nearly half a century ago, the IAEA – whose $130 million inspections budget Mr. ElBaradei has likened to that of the Vienna police department – has struggled to adapt to the changing nature of the nuclear threat. When it was created, nuclear programs were much larger – in size and cost – and thus more readily detectable. Now, the situation is different, thanks to modern technology.
"It's easier to hide than to find a covert nuclear-weapon program," says Henry Sokolsky, who served as deputy for nonproliferation policy under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. "The bad news is the bomb is small, requires a small amount of nuclear material, and you can make the activities small enough to hide."
Compounding the IAEA's difficulties is the fact that its key mechanism for preventing nuclear proliferation – the landmark Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – doesn't allow the watchdog to inspect any facility it chooses, but only those declared by a state.
In effect since 1970, the NPT was exposed as flawed in 1991 when, in the wake of the Gulf War, the IAEA discovered that Iraq, an NPT signatory, had a secret nuclear program. To close the loophole, the so-called Additional Protocol went into effect in 1997, empowering the IAEA to inspect what it suspects may be undeclared sites. However, almost a decade later, only 78 of 180 NPT signatories have ratified the additional protocol. Because of national sovereignty, inspectors can't simply barge into a country.
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.
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."