Category Archives: IAEA

Yukia Amano

There he is, your “next IAEA DG”: Yukia Amano, Japan’s ambassador to the IAEA. Unfortunately, it seems he was elected “without the benefit”: of a strong consensus.

Good luck, Amb. Amano.

Hibbs on Syria U Traces

So it turns out that we’re just living in James Acton’s shadow over here.

Mark Hibbs has details on the “uranium oxide traces”: that the IAEA found in Syria. It’s in the the April 6 issue of “NuclearFuel”:

First, it appears that “James’s view”: of the 80+ particles of anthropogenic U found in Syria is shared within the IAEA:

bq. Early this year, a senior UN safeguards official said the IAEA believed that the particles appeared to be NATU that had oxidized (NF, 23 Feb., 5). According to the official, the finding was consistent with the hypothesis the uranium was metallic fuel material for a DPRK-type production reactor.

Second, Hibbs goes on to relate that there’s not a great deal of research on the behavior of U particles under various conditions, but it’s generally accepted that if they are divided finely enough, they’ll oxidize all the way through.

Reading between the lines, it seems that the number of particles found in the swipe samples — now described by Hibbs as numbering close to 100 — is simply too many to be accounted for by cross-contamination. So much for “my pet theory”: As long as we’re not talking about something off-the-wall, like HWR fuel — this was said to be a “Magnox”: reactor, remember? — then in the absence of additional information, it’s only reasonable to believe that there was a lot of uranium metal onsite, which was blasted into itty-bitty bits. (That’s a technical term.)

Hibbs also offers a great deal of insight into the state of attribution technology for particles of this type. The U.S. has traces of U from North Korea; is it sharing the “fingerprints” with the IAEA for purposes of comparison? We don’t know. But that Acton fellow has “written about the North Korea traces”:

Lastly, it seems that the Syrian government has refused requests to return to the scene of the swipes to take more samples. Once stung, twice shy. This once again raises the question of when the IAEA will be willing to use its power of “special inspections”: Any day now, folks!

If the subject interests you, Pierre Goldschmidt makes special inspections Topic A in a recent paper on “strengthening the nonproliferation regime”: Some guy named James Acton also “spoke about this recently”:

I think I’ll go find something else to blog about now.

NK: Can This Bad Marriage Be Saved?

Here’s the “IAEA statement”: on North Korea’s latest move:

Press Release 2008/13
IAEA Removes Seals from Plant in Yongbyon

24 September 2008 | Following is a statement to the media by IAEA Spokesperson Melissa Fleming on the situation in the DPRK:

“As the Director General reported to the Board on Monday, the Democratic People´s Republic of Korea, the DPRK, asked the IAEA to remove seals and surveillance from the reprocessing plant in Yongbyon.

This work was completed today. There are no more IAEA seals and surveillance equipment in place at the reprocessing facility.

The DPRK has also informed the IAEA inspectors that they plan to introduce nuclear material to the reprocessing plant in one week´s time.

They further stated that from here on the IAEA inspectors will have no further access to the reprocessing plant.”

OK, OK, here’s the “new IAEA statement”:

Press Release 2009/03
IAEA Inspectors Asked to Leave the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

2009-04-14 | Following is a statement to the media by IAEA Spokesperson Marc Vidricaire on the situation in the DPRK:

“The Democratic People´s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has today informed IAEA inspectors in the Yongbyon facility that it is immediately ceasing all cooperation with the IAEA. It has requested the removal of all containment and surveillance equipment, following which, IAEA inspectors will no longer be provided access to the facility. The inspectors have also been asked to leave the DPRK at the earliest possible time.

The DPRK also informed the IAEA that it has decided to reactivate all facilities and go ahead with the reprocessing of spent fuel.”

The consensus is already taking shape: North Korea has walked away from the 6PT and ain’t coming back. Maybe I’m overcorrecting, but I remember thinking the same thing last year, too.

Possibly there’s still hope, if not for the resumption of the 6PT, then for renewal of dialogue in some other form that keeps Yongbyon on ice. Both sides seem to have an interest in moving to a “bilateral format”:

Still, things do look worse this time around, don’t they? It may be that KJI, post-stroke, has become preoccupied with regime solidarity, and is not interested in handing off a delicate diplomatic process to a neophyte successor.

If so, KJI is courting a very tough response from a U.S. that feels threatened by surplus plutonium, and the possibility that it might someday go further afield than North Korea.


Pretty much as “expected earlier”:, there’s no consensus candidate for the next IAEA D-G. Not yet, anyhow.

About a week ago, Borzou Daraghi of the _LA Times_ — yeah, I’m on a big _LA Times_ kick lately for some reason — “summed it up pretty nicely”:,0,3259640.story:

Minty, a charismatic diplomat known for his outspokenness, has emerged as the favorite of developing countries. Most are sympathetic to Iran’s nuclear aspirations and suspicious of the West’s attempts to deny them nuclear technology while keeping its own weapons stockpiles untouched.

Amano, a low-key technocrat, has emerged as the West’s favored candidate for his commitment to restrict the agency’s duties to narrow technical issues and forgo the type of opinionated diplomatic mediation practiced by ElBaradei and his predecessor, Hans Blix.

“A great director-general is one who artfully navigates the politics of the situation to permit the IAEA to fulfill its technical mission,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the New America Foundation. “I think (ElBaradei) has lost that sense of balance. His speeches now cover topics far outside the mandate of the IAEA, from missile defense to the Middle East peace process.”

(Do you think that “Nobel Peace Prize”: might have gone to his head a little? Not that his head was ever really that small.)

So now we’re waiting for a compromise candidate to emerge, but this could take awhile. In the meantime, here’s a “tidbit that David Crawford relates”: in today’s _WSJ_:

bq. In 2003, Mr. Minty, a political scientist, helped to broker an agreement with Iran that allowed the IAEA improved access to nuclear installations in Iran. In an interview, the 69-year-old Mr. Minty said the accord followed long conversations in Tehran. “There are no magical words,” he said. “Trust is more important.”

More when the white smoke goes up.

Wonk Pissing Contest

The “Iran breakout debate”: has officially become tiresome.

Anyone bothering to read this blog will remember “the instant analysis of the last IAEA report that ISIS put out”: It got “quite a bit of attention”: at the time.

Some of you might also have seen “what Glaser and Kemp wrote in response”:

Anyone on the ISIS email list certainly knows, because ISIS “called them out today”:, for some reason.

Kemp and Glaser have now made a quick reply.

Knowledge doesn’t grow without criticism and debate. I’ve certainly learned a thing or two from this exchange. But some of it seems waaaay too close to being a determined defense of “a hasty analysis that grabbed headlines and caused confusion”: This approach ill serves the cause of informing the public about science and policy issues affecting international security.

That is all.

Cross-posted to “”: See the “comments at ACW”:

Non-Technological Safeguards

I’ve just stumbled across a “paper”:, almost a year old now, by one Peter Friend, the head of Safeguards and Security at Urenco. It concerns the safeguarding of a centrifuge enrichment facility.

Yes, this again.

It includes a short section on “new inspection techniques.” Here are the highlights:

There are many organisations – particularly in USA – currently aiming to develop new equipment and new techniques for safeguards verification purposes. But many of the developers (who might not have many contacts with IAEA or with operators experienced in safeguards implementation) seem to be too interested in the technology per se, and should give a lot more thought into the practicalities.


In Urenco’s view, the presence of a competent inspector on site provides more effective safeguards than the use of complex remote monitoring equipment.

(VERTIC’s Persbo has “mentioned the idea in the past”: as well.)

Without regurgitating Friend’s entire list of concerns — see page 7 of “his paper”: if you’re interested — it suffices to say that there are many complexities involved with designing and installing new monitoring technologies in centrifuge plants, especially if the plant is already standing.

One might add to this a certain lack of trust between the monitors and the monitored: just what is that gizmo doing, anyway? And those third parties meant to be assured by the monitoring may have concerns that the gizmos can be gamed, one way or another, if there’s no one around to keep an eye on them. So having a permanent on-site presence does seem preferable in many ways.

(To be sure, sorting out the modalities, including who would make a mutually acceptable on-siter, is not entirely simple. Also, I do think continuous flow monitoring would be an excellent idea. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, or shouldn’t be.)

But there’s another benefit to having a small team of on-site inspectors always present. They can really get to know the people.

It’s the People, Stupid

Without pretending to know more than I do, let’s just say that there can only be so many humans in a given country, such as Iran, with the requisite expertise in working with centrifuge enrichment technology. Getting to know those humans and what they are doing seems like the best possible monitoring technique.

Call it “social verification”:, right?

Concerns about breakout potential are “clearly”: “mounting”: — even if one doesn’t indulge in worst-case thinking — and undeclared centrifuge facilities are notoriously difficult to detect. So if you are worried about both a breakout at a declared site _and_ the possibility of an undeclared site somewhere else, how would you guard against them? There’s reason to be doubtful that even the Additional Protocol, by itself, would suffice to detect undeclared plants with confidence.

You’ll sometimes hear this same argument made in favor of a multinational fuel center; personally, I find it pretty compelling, at least compared to alternative strategies. But there’s a long way to go before any such proposal can be realized. The good news is, even if the multinationalization idea can’t be achieved, the idea of a full-time -inspectors- _presence_ can be adapted to safeguarding a national facility.

_Added thought: The difficulty, of course, remains in getting the monitored side to agree._

“Cross-posted to”: See “the comments at ACW”:

Tribute (Breakout) Blogging

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen “this assessment of Iran’s ability to bypass safeguards”: by Andreas Persbo of VERTIC:

At the present, I believe that the likelihood of an Iranian break-out is slim. The principal reason for this argument is that Iran’s installed capacity at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz is still low, and that a break-out would entail significant political and security risks for the country. As long as Agency safeguards are in place at the Iranian sites, the international community is likely to get advance warning of any attempt to divert material or to use the existing facilities for nefarious purposes.

The problem is that not all of the nuclear fuel cycle is under safeguards. Processes downstream from the uranium conversion facility are generally covered. But uranium mining and milling as well as certain nuclear related activities (such as research centres or centrifuge assembly sites) are not monitored. Since this is the case, it is easy for a fairly technologically advanced state to construct a parallel nuclear fuel cycle, using indigenous uranium resources to fuel a clandestine weapons programme.

(Read “the whole thing”:

What you might not have seen, though, is the entire series of in-depth posts appearing lately at his home blog, “Verification, Implementation and Compliance”:

* “Progress at Natanz”:

* “The Iranian breakout scenario”:

* “Tracking UF6 cylinders”:

* And now, of course, “Bypassing safeguards”:

Now, some of this is not for the faint of heart. When I wrote about “safeguards at Natanz”: last summer at ACW, for example, I consciously avoided using certain words like “hexapartite.” It’s not that the ACW readership can’t figure that one out; it’s just distracting if you have to. But if you like your nuclear wonkery undiluted and in-depth, then you had better be following VIC.

Syria: Ups and Downs of Special Inspections

The verification provisions of many arms control or nonproliferation treaties involve some version of the “special inspection.” Under whatever name, it comes down to the ability to inspect an undeclared site. There are invariably limits on these provisions, since the parties have legitimate interests in keeping unrelated secrets and in not having government or commercial activities disrupted excessively by short-notice visits from outside.

But probably the biggest checks on special inspections are unwritten. One is the concern that, once the provision is used by a state party, it could invite retaliatory uses that might prove embarrassing, intrusive, disruptive, or just humiliating. Many governments are sensitive about their national sovereignty and don’t wish to set any precedents.

Another concern is that use of the special inspection provision could prompt a refusal, leading to a withdrawal from the treaty, perhaps leading to an unraveling of the regime. As a result, these provisions are used only very sparingly, if ever. (Has there _ever_ been a challenge inspection, as it is called, under the Chemical Weapons Convention?)

So it’s encouraging to see former IAEA official Pierre Goldschmidt — along with noted experts Mark Fitzpatrick and James Acton — calling on the IAEA to conduct a special inspection in Syria under the terms of its nuclear safeguards agreement.

An (extremely) abbreviated version of their statement appeared as a “letter in the IHT”: The whole thing is “here”:

This topic has already been “kicked”: “around”: at “ACW”:

On The Other Hand

Gaming it out a bit, though, it’s doubtful their advice will be taken. “The Syrians seem disinclined to come clean”:, and the international community may lack the stomach to undertake a protracted confrontation, with referral to the Security Council, sanctions, and so forth. Without at least one of these conditions in place, pushing for special inspections could do more harm than good.

As others have argued, proceeding regardless could set a good precedent by making this type of activity more routine. But we can assume that the Syrians have learned a thing or two from the past experiences of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, South Korea, North Korea, and (of course) Syria itself. Special inspections at well-scrubbed sites that turned up nothing could further deplete the will to pursue the matter. Following this line of thought, precedent-setting special inspections might be better done elsewhere, where less is at stake.

For these reasons, cautious officials at the IAEA could easily conclude that the risk of a setback to the NPT regime wasn’t worth it. I’m not endorsing this point of view, assuming anyone actually holds it, but it seems understandable. Of course, there also seems to be something rather less calculated in play — sheer pique that Israel bombed al-Kibar rather than tipping off the IAEA, and that the U.S. stayed mum, too.

Two Strikes

If the IAEA does continue to duck calls for special inspections, it would be a shame, because it would mean losing the best remaining chance to investigate the “three mystery sites”: That’s strike two.

What was strike one? Despite the efficacy of swipe sampling, Syria has managed to deny the international community any truly thorough opportunity to investigate al-Kibar. The simple acts of clearing the site, laying a concrete foundation, erecting a new structure, and declaring it be a military facility have sealed its contents away from the eyes of outsiders. “What do you suppose is under that slab”:

One of the reasons I was skeptical of early reports that the mystery building was a reactor was how little time it took to make it all vanish. Large amounts of rubble and the major structures of a reactor couldn’t be whisked away undetected quite so quickly, right? But as it happened, “the main structures were in a deep basement”: to begin with. And there is no reason to assume that they were completely removed.

Actually getting at this stuff would give fresh meaning to phrases like “destructive assay”: and “nuclear archaeology”: But when would the Syrian authorities allow such a thing? Under most circumstances, the basis of the nonproliferation regime is consent. So in the absence of an extraordinary exercise of coercive power — the sword of Damocles suspended over Iraq during the UNSCOM era, let’s say — no inspection power is quite special enough.

At the mystery sites, though, no such entombment has taken place. Or so I’d hope.

Let’s sum up.

It’s fascinating out here in wonk-land to observe the unfolding of this particular nuclear-forensic drama. But the bottom line is, as long as the big powers are not of one mind on the importance of nuclear nonproliferation, the international bureaucrats probably aren’t going to stick their necks out too, too far.

And that is bad news.

“Musical bonus”:

Nuclear Applications for Composite Materials

Mark Heinrich of Reuters reports that the contest for IAEA Secretary-General is deadlocked:

“A composite of Amano and Minty would be excellent but it can’t happen now. Many people here are waiting or hoping for third candidates to come out,” another European diplomat.

“Read it here”:

Update From The Pencil Factory

“Reuters reports”: that the IAEA’s Olli Heinonen has given a briefing to diplomats about al-Kibar’s Pencil Box — you know, the place in Syria where they found “traces of uranium and graphite”:

The briefing contained the following statement: “Eighty particles of uranium oxide is significant.”

So does “uranium oxide” mean that we are looking at “cross-contamination”: from U3O8 (i.e., yellowcake), UO3, or UO2 at another facility, as I’ve suggested, and not from “Magnox fuel”: located onsite, as James has suggested?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t give us much ability to distinguish between these two possibilities. As this “handy cheat sheet”: from Argonne National Laboratory explains, uranium metal (such as that found in Magnox fuel) “is subject to surface oxidation. It tarnishes in air, with the oxide film preventing further oxidation of massive metal at room temperature.”

Microscopic particles would presumably oxidize all the way through. In other words, whatever they might have been part of before the bombs hit the building, they’re now infinitesimal specks of rust.

At the same meeting in Vienna, the “NY Times reports”:, a Syrian diplomat stated that the replacement building is missile-related:

“He made a reference to a missile, one missile,” said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under usual diplomatic protocol.

Thanks to my impeccable clandestine sources, I can now bring to you an exclusive ground-truth photograph recently taken near the site.