Module 3:

Treaty Verification: Understanding IAEA Safeguards

What is the IAEA?

  • Established in 1957 as the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization
  • Autonomous organization within the United Nations system
  • Principal nonproliferation responsibility is to conclude and implement safeguards agreements with member states
  • Charged with other responsibilities, including promoting peaceful nuclear activities and providing related technical assistance to member states

What are International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards?

  • Implemented by the IAEA
  • Designed to verify that state declarations about their nuclear materials and activities are correct and complete[i]
  • Objective is to provide “timely detection of diversion of significant quantities of nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities to the manufacture of nuclear weapons or of other nuclear explosive devices or for purposes unknown, and deterrence of such diversion by the risk of early detection”[ii]
  • A confidence-building measure to assure members of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that nuclear material is not being diverted from peaceful to military use

What is the relationship between the IAEA and the nuclear nonproliferation regime’s treaties?

  • Article III of the NPT entrusts the IAEA with verification of non-nuclear weapon states’ compliance with their nonproliferation commitments
  • The IAEA is also responsible for facilitating peaceful nuclear cooperation among states per Article IV of the NPT
  • IAEA safeguards are integral to the establishment and verification of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ). As part of an NWFZ treaty, each state party adopts comprehensive safeguards agreements administered by the IAEA. The Central Asian NWFZ goes a step further in requiring states in the region to adopt the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which provides the Agency with expanded monitoring authority. As part of the Pelindaba Treaty, the African States authorize the IAEA to verify the dismantlement and destruction of any nuclear explosives, as well as the destruction or conversion of facilities for their production (this clause arose out of South Africa’s experience with IAEA-verified nuclear weapons dismantlement)

What types of nuclear materials and facilities are under safeguards?

Uranium and plutonium in various forms are the chief nuclear materials under safeguards. Thorium-related activities must also be placed under safeguards, but since no country currently operates a thorium-based fuel cycle at a commercial (rather than research) level, it is not currently a safeguards focus. The below diagram depicts the uranium-plutonium civil nuclear fuel cycle (though most countries only have some of its components). It clarifies which stages of a non-nuclear weapon state’s fuel cycle fall under conventional safeguards authority, and which are only under IAEA safeguards if the country has concluded an Additional Protocol.
Nuclear Fuel Cycle & Safeguards

How do safeguards work?

The application of IAEA safeguards is an ongoing process consisting of several steps:

  1. The state’s system of accounting and control (SSAC) conducts inspections of nuclear fuel cycle-related facilities and compiles a report of domestic nuclear holdings
  2. The state submits its SSAC report to the IAEA declaring relevant nuclear materials and facilities
  3. IAEA inspectors visit the state’s facilities under 1 of 4 inspection mandates:
    1. Ad Hoc inspections usually verify a state’s initial nuclear report or corrections to it
    2. Routine inspections are performed on a regular basis to verify state declarations; inspections may be scheduled or unannounced, but states are typically given 24-hour advance notice
    3. Special inspections supplement routine inspections and are executed in unusual circumstances according to defined procedures. The IAEA carries out such inspections if it considers that information provided by the state is not adequate for the IAEA to verify the correctness and completeness of the state’s declarations. Special inspections must be requested and authorized by the IAEA Board of Governors
    4. Safeguard Visits are inspections of declared facilities to confirm the safeguards design information received by the IAEA. Unlike the three other forms of inspections, safeguard visits are carried out during facility construction
  4. IAEA inspectors install containment, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. For example, video cameras may be placed in spent fuel storage areas, or seals may be placed on nuclear reactors following refueling
  5. IAEA inspectors collect information and samples at the site and confirm the physical inventories of any nuclear material. They also examine facility design, facility operating records, and facility operations
  6. IAEA inspectors perform independent verification of the completeness and correctness of the state’s declarations, comparing what they observed at the facility with open source analysis
  7. IAEA inspectors return to collect surveillance videotapes and check seals on a regular basis. They also use remote monitoring systems, which transmit safeguards data to off-site locations for collection and analysis
  8. When necessary, the IAEA Board of Governors will report instances of safeguards non-compliance to the UN Security Council (per INFCIRC/11), which is the institution responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. The IAEA Board of Governors has historically reported several countries to the UN Security Council, including Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Iraq

What types of safeguards agreements exist?

Safeguards predate the NPT and arose in the 1950s from the need to verify that nuclear materials and technologies transferred under programs such as U.S. Atoms for Peace remained in peaceful use. Following the NPT’s 1970 entry-into-force, IAEA safeguards became mandatory for NPT non-nuclear weapon states possessing relevant nuclear materials or facilities. Over time, safeguards agreements have evolved to increase the likelihood of detecting a clandestine nuclear weapons program based on undeclared facilities (emphasizing both the correctness and completeness of a state’s declarations).Safeguards agreements are customized to each state’s unique capabilities and needs. However, there are several primary types of safeguard agreements on which these customized agreements are based:
Treaty Verification Diagram
1.) Facility-specific: Information Circular 66 (INFCIRC/66)

  • Adopted in 1965
  • Designed to safeguard individual nuclear facilities before the NPT entered into force; most of these agreements with NPT state parties have been replaced by more extensive modern agreements
  • Today, INFCIRC/66-type agreements are implemented in states that are not NPT parties

2.) Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) (INFCIRC/153)

  • Approved in 1970
  • Applies safeguards on all nuclear material in any non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) party to the NPT
  • Allows the IAEA to give credible assurances that no declared nuclear material is being diverted for use in nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices
  • State agrees to establish and maintain a system of accounting and control of all nuclear material under its jurisdiction
  • State declares all its nuclear facilities and materials; the IAEA then verifies the correctness of the declarations through inspections, measurements, and surveillance
  • As of September 2013, 12 NNWS parties to the NPT have not yet brought their comprehensive safeguards agreements into force

3.) Model Additional Protocol (INFCIRC/540)

  • Approved in 1997
  • Was negotiated in response to the discovery of a clandestine Iraqi nuclear program following the first Gulf War, which involved parallel undeclared nuclear facilities
  • States are required to provide access to all locations that are, or could be, engaged in activities related to the nuclear fuel cycle
  • The principal aim is to enable the IAEA to provide assurances about both declared activities and the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities
  • Complements INFCIRC/153 by expanding IAEA monitoring tools to include expanded access to facilities and individuals, additional reporting on nuclear-related activities, and other measures
  • As of September 2013,121 of the IAEA’s 159 member states have concluded Additional Protocols that have entered into force

4.) The Small Quantities Protocol (SQP)

  • Approved in 1971; Modified SQP approved in 2005
  • Addendum to a comprehensive safeguards agreement for states with negligible or no nuclear activity
  • Eligibility based on quantities of nuclear material in the state, which cannot exceed 1kg of special fissionable material (INFCIRC/153 paragraph 37)
  • The SQP exempts qualifying states from IAEA inspections as long as the conditions negotiated in the comprehensive safeguards agreement continue to apply
  • Of the 159 IAEA Member States, 76 have SQPs in force, and 12 other states have signed SQPs

5.) Voluntary offer safeguards agreements

  • Negotiated between the IAEA and the nuclear weapon states (NWS) on a voluntary basis as an NPT confidence-building measure
  • There is no template INFCIRC on which to build; rather, each NWS has its own agreement.

6.)The state-level approach, also called “information-driven safeguards”[iii]

  • A proposed method of safeguards implementation that considers the state as a whole, rather than solely the amount of nuclear material it possesses
  • Driven by specific information and capabilities in the state, rather than routine visits and verification
  • Under this approach, safeguards agreements would not change, but the implementation would differ depending on the state in question
  • This method focuses on potential acquisition paths a state would take if it were to pursue nuclear weapons
  • Some state parties fear that this method could subject them to unfair or biased IAEA attention

What are examples of safeguards activities?

  • On-site inspections
  • Sampling and analysis of nuclear material
  • Verification of correctness and completeness of operator accounting records of all movements and transactions involving nuclear material

What are the principal challenges to safeguards?

  • Strengthening the IAEA verification system is one of the most urgent challenges for the IAEA and the NPT
  • The discovery of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program after the 1991 Gulf War, in addition to the subsequent discovery of undeclared nuclear activities in Iran, Libya and North Korea underlined the need to strengthen the safeguards system
  • Ongoing challenges to the IAEA verification regime include unresolved safeguards non-compliance by Iran and Syria
  • Some member states advocate further strengthening the IAEA’s verification system through the state-level approach, also known as information-driven safeguards
  • Some member states object to the state-level approach, believing it is discriminatory, would be overly intrusive, would pose an increased burden to member states, and could lead to abuse of power by overstretching the IAEA’s authority


[i]  “How We Implement Safeguards.” International Atomic Energy Agency. 2014. Web

[ii] “The Technical Objective of Safeguards.” International Atomic Energy Agency Publication. Web.

[iii] Nackaerts, Herman. “Statement at Symposium on International Safeguards: Preparing for Future Verification Challenges.” International  Atomic Energy Agency.  1 November 2010.