Module 3:

Treaty Verification: Understanding IAEA Safeguards

What is the International Atomic Energy Agency (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 states and other international bodies
  • Charged with other responsibilities, including promoting peaceful nuclear activities and providing related technical assistance to member states

What are IAEA safeguards?

  • A set of technical measures applied by the IAEA on nuclear material, facilities and activities, through which the IAEA seeks to independently verify that nuclear facilities are not misused and nuclear material not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices
  • 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]
  • The IAEA can apply safeguards pursuant to bilateral and multilateral agreements; upon request of an individual state, and as part of IAEA assistance projects

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

  • Article III of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) obligates all non-nuclear-weapon states to conclude comprehensive safeguards agreements with the IAEA. These agreements are based on the IAEA document INFCIRC/153, and apply to “all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within the territory of such State, under its jurisdiction, or carried out under its control anywhere.” (NPT Article III.1)
  • IAEA safeguards are integral to the establishment and verification of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ). As part of an NWFZ treaty, each state party agrees to conclude comprehensive safeguards agreements with by the IAEA. The Central Asian NWFZ goes a step further in requiring states in the region to conclude an additional protocol to their CSAs, which provides the Agency with an expanded set of tools to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material. 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 the IAEA’s experience in verifying the peaceful nature of South Africa’s nuclear activities after the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program)

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 priority. 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 a CSA, 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 system of accounting and control (SSAC) measures the quantities of nuclear material received, produced, shipped, lost or otherwise removed from inventory 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. The IAEA conducts three kinds of verification activities in states:
    1. Inspections, including: Routine Inspections to verify state declarations; Ad Hoc Inspections to verify the information contained in a state’s initial report and changes that might have occurred since it was submitted; and Special Inspections in cases when the IAEA considers that the information made available to it by the States is not adequate to fulfil its safeguards responsibilities.
    2. Design Information Verification, during which inspectors compare the design information the State has submitted to the IAEA with in-field observations to confirm that the information provided by the State is correct and complete, and the facility has not been misused.
    3. Complementary Access, which is an additional authority granted under the Model Additional Protocol to allow the IAEA access to facilities, sites and locations additional to those granted under a CSA.
  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 components of nuclear reactors to provide evidence of tampering, or the lack thereof
  5. IAEA inspectors collect information and samples at the site and confirm the physical inventories of nuclear material. They also examine facility design, facility operating records, and facility operations
  6. The IAEA performs independent verification of the completeness and correctness of the state’s declarations, comparing what IAEA inspectors observe at the facility with state declarations and other information available to it
  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). The IAEA Board of Governors has historically reported several countries to the UN Security Council, including Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Iran and Syria

What types of safeguards agreements exist?

Safeguards predate the NPT and arose in the 1950s as part of project and supply agreements 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, CSAs became mandatory for all NPT non-nuclear-weapon states. In the 1990s, the discovery of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, South Africa’s declaration of the dismantlement of its secret nuclear weapons program, and the failure of the DPRK to provide timely and accurate declarations about its nuclear activities and subsequent refusal to cooperate with the IAEA demonstrated that the IAEA required additional tools to provide assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material. This gave rise to the program to strengthen IAEA safeguards and adoption, in 1997, of Model Additional Protocol. Below is a summary of existing types of safeguards agreements.
Treaty Verification Diagram
1.) Item-Specific Safeguards

  • The first safeguards document (INFCIRC/26) was designed to apply safeguards to small reactors and was approved by the IAEA’s Board of Governors in 1961
  • The Board approved a revision of this document in 1964 to include large reactors
  • By 1968, a completely redesigned safeguards document was approved by the Board that included principles and procedures for reprocessing plants, conversion facilities and fuel fabrication facilities, as well as nuclear material contained within them (INFCIRC/66/Rev.2)
  • Today, INFCIRC/66-type agreements are implemented in states that are not NPT parties

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

  • INFCIRC/153, based on which CSAs are concluded, was 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 declarations through inspections, measurements, and surveillance
  • As of September 2019, 10 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 large part as a response to the discovery of a clandestine Iraqi nuclear program following the first Gulf War, which involved parallel undeclared nuclear facilities
  • In addition to what a CSA covers, an AP covers: (1) R&D without nuclear material; (2) manufacturing of nuclear items/commodities; (3) mining, milling and management of intermediate or high-level waste (containing plutonium, high enriched uranium or uranium-233). The principal aim is to complement INFCIRC/153 and enable the IAEA to provide assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities by enhancing IAEA monitoring tools to include expanded access to facilities and individuals, additional reporting on nuclear-related activities, and other measures. As of September 2019, 137 states had concluded and brought into force additional protocols

4.) The Small Quantities Protocol (SQP)

  • Approved in 1971; Modified SQP approved in 2005
  • A protocol 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 suspends the implementation of most of the safeguards procedures in Part II of a CSA as long as the SQP’s criteria are met.
  • The Modified SQP changed eligibility and reporting requirements: in order to qualify for a modified SQP, a state must not only have limited quantities of nuclear material but also not have taken a decision to construct or authorize construction of a facility. A state should also submit an initial report on nuclear material
  • As of September 2019, 62 States has accepted SQPs in accordance with the modified text

5.) Voluntary offer safeguards agreements (VOA)

  • Negotiated between the IAEA and the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) on a voluntary basis as an NPT confidence-building measure
  • Like CSAs, VOAs are also based on the text of INFCIRC/153, but safeguards are only applied to nuclear material and facilities that a nuclear-weapon state submits (offers) under the safeguards agreement and the IAEA selects

The State-Level Concept[iii]

  • A way of referring to the IAEA’s long-established practice of taking all safeguards-relevant information available to it into account when drawing safeguards conclusions about a state
  • Based on the principles of the State-Level Concept, the IAEA develops state-level approaches (SLAs) for states: (1) with both CSAs and APs in force; (2) for whom the IAEA has drawn the broader conclusion that all nuclear material and facilities remained in peaceful use; and (3) for whom the measures available under CSAs and APs had been optimized under integrated safeguards
  • An SLA is a customized safeguards approach for a State that takes into account the characteristics of a State’s nuclear fuel cycle, related activities, the transparency of its nuclear program overall, as well as other state-specific factors
  • By devising SLAs for states, the IAEA seeks to increase assurances that no declared nuclear material was diverted to nuclear weapons and that there are no indications of undeclared nuclear material. With SLAs, the IAEA also aims to increase the efficiency of safeguards implementation in states

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 current safeguards challenges?

  • The conclusion of outstanding CSAs and the expansion of the number of states with APs in force. States with SQPs based on the old model should either amend them or, if they no longer qualify under the 2005 model, rescind them
  • Ensuring the further strengthening of the safeguards system, overcoming current political disagreements on the role of the additional protocols, state-level concept and other issues
  • Understanding the challenges and opportunities offered by new and emerging technologies, such as distributed ledger technology, data visualization, robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. New and emerging types of nuclear facilities, such as small modular reactors, molten salt reactors and pebble bed modular reactors, will also pose unique technological challenges to safeguards
  • Addressing concerns among IAEA Member States about the balance between the IAEA’s safeguards responsibilities and its other functions
  • Combatting misunderstandings and unawareness of the importance of safeguards via outreach conducted by the IAEA and its Member States


[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.