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Every little helps

Nuclear safeguards

Jan 8th 2009 From The Economist print edition

EKING out the pennies, working at times with begged-and-borrowed tools, but expected to pit their wits against hard nuclear cases like Iran and North Korea, inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now have two reasons to smile. The United States has become the 89th country to bring into force a toughened nuclear-safeguards agreement. (By accepting stricter scrutiny of their own civilian nuclear activities, the Americans have boosted the IAEA’s hand as it chivvies laggards to co-operate.) Also, America’s president-elect, Barack Obama, supports a doubling of the IAEA budget by 2020, partly to help the inspectors’ work.

The IAEA’s job is to ensure that countries abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). With all five official nuclear-weapons states now signed up to an Additional Protocol (Britain, China, France and Russia adopted the new safeguards earlier; India, unrecognised as a nuclear power and outside the NPT, will soon follow), the agency’s moral power will grow.

A list of tougher safeguards was agreed in 1997, after it was realised how easily Saddam Hussein had cheated inspectors, to pursue secret bomb projects, before the 1991 war. Instead of just mandating checks on declared material, the new rules let inspectors go in at shorter notice; give them more information; and let them snoop more widely, with better techniques.

The trouble is, signing up is voluntary. More than a decade on, fewer than half the world’s governments have an Additional Protocol in force; of the more than 100 that don’t, some have potentially misusable nuclear materials or technology. That includes Iran, which signed but refuses to implement the protocol unless the UN Security Council abandons efforts to halt its suspect nuclear programme, North Korea and Syria (where an alleged secret reactor still being built was bombed by Israel in 2007). It also includes Algeria, Argentina, Brazil and others. Meanwhile 30 countries (including Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all with nuclear interest) still do not have even the weaker safeguards system required by the NPT.

Making the tougher safeguards universal would help inspectors. But even these can do only so much. The Additional Protocol is an excellent way for those who don’t cheat to show their virtue. Those who have built or hankered after a bomb and thought better of it—South Africa before it joined the NPT, or Libya when it was caught out and confessed—do better to offer even fuller co-operation still.

Where inspectors are stymied, the UN Security Council is supposed to back them up. But Russia hesitates to sanction Iran, and China long shielded North Korea. Better, says Pierre Goldschmidt, an ex-head of safeguards at the IAEA, to end all favouritism. The council should agree on a binding process for any country found in non-compliance. First, inspectors would get temporary powers to demand all access they needed. If doubts persist, all sensitive nuclear work should stop; if that is refused, all military co-operation with the state would end forthwith. No skin off Iran’s nose today, perhaps. But had all this been in place when it was first caught out in 2003, its uranium and plutonium work might have been stopped before it really got going.