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Nuclear Safeguards and the International Atomic Energy Agency

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The International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA plays a central role in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Through its system of nuclear safeguards, the IAEA is responsible for ensuring that signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty NPT do not use their nuclear materials, equipment, or facilities for weapon purposes. IAEA safeguards, however, have significant limitations, as described in the Office of Technology Assessment report Nuclear safeguards and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Some of these limitations were highlighted in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when it was revealed that Iraq had mounted an extensive, covert nuclear weapon program in addition to, and partly in proximity to, open nuclear research activities that were under IAEA safeguards. The following year, IAEA investigations revealed that the North Korean government was hiding information on the extent of its nuclear material production. The Iraqi and North Korean cases showed that states could and did violate their Nonproliferation Treaty commitments, actions that many had previously considered an abstract and distant threat. They also showed that the IAEAs traditional mission of detecting the misuse of safeguarded nuclear materials addressed only part and probably not the most important part of the proliferation problem. To avoid similar problems in the future, the IAEA has to ensure that states do not have covert nuclear facilities, a mission that in the past the agency did not have the political support, the resources, nor the information to conduct. IAEA safeguards make it very difficult for states to use civil nuclear facilities for weapon purposes without detection. However, they cannot prevent states from acquiring the technology needed to produce nuclear materials, or from stockpiling this material within civil programs, and then withdrawing from or violating safeguards to produce weapons.

Subject Categories:

  • Nuclear Warfare
  • Nuclear Power Plants and Fission Reactor Engineering
  • Nuclear Weapons

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