Nuclear Safeguards

General information

The unprofessional, dishonest Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO)

More information about safeguards

Australian literature (dealing with Australian and international issues)

International literature:

Summary – the limitations of safeguards

Short excerpt from August 2015 submission to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, by Friends of the Earth, Australia; the Australian Conservation Foundation; and the Conservation Council of SA.

The limitations of safeguards − summary

There are many problems and limitations with the international safeguards system.[1] In articles and speeches during his tenure as IAEA Director General from 1997− 2009, Dr. Mohamed El Baradei said that the Agency’s basic rights of inspection are “fairly limited”, that the safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities” and “clearly needs reinforcement”, that efforts to improve the system have been “half-hearted”, and that the safeguards system operates on a “shoestring budget … comparable to that of a local police department”.

Problems with safeguards include:

  1. Chronic under-resourcing.[2] El Baradei told the IAEA Board of Governors in 2009: “I would be misleading world public opinion to create an impression that we are doing what we are supposed to do, when we know that we don’t have the money to do it.”[3] Little has changed since 2009. Meanwhile, the scale of the safeguards challenge is ever-increasing as new facilities are built and materials stockpiles grow.
  2. Issues relating to national sovereignty and commercial confidentiality adversely impact on safeguards.
  3. The inevitability of accounting discrepancies. Nuclear accounting discrepancies are commonplace and inevitable due to the difficulty of precisely measuring nuclear materials. The accounting discrepancies are known as Material Unaccounted For (MUF). There have been incidents of large-scale MUF in Australia’s uranium customer countries such as the UK and Japan.[4]
  4. Incorrect/outdated assumptions about the amount of fissile material required to build a weapon.
  5. The fact that the IAEA has no mandate to prevent the misuse of civil nuclear facilities and materials − at best it can detect misuse/diversion and refer the problem to the UN Security Council. As the IAEA states: “It is clear that no international safeguards system can physically prevent diversion or the setting up of an undeclared or clandestine nuclear programme.”[5] Numerous examples illustrate how difficult and protracted the resolution (or attempted resolution) of such issues can be, e.g. North Korea, Iran, Iraq in the 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Countries that have breached their safeguards obligations can simply withdraw from the NPT and pursue a weapons program, as North Korea has done.
  6. Safeguards are shrouded in secrecy − to give one example, the IAEA used to publish aggregate data on the number of inspections in India, Israel and Pakistan, but even that nearly worthless information is no longer publicly available.
  7. There are precedents for the complete breakdown of nuclear safeguards in the context of political and military conflict − examples include Iraq, Yugoslavia and several African countries.
  8. Currently, IAEA safeguards only begin at the stage of uranium enrichment. Application of IAEA safeguards should be extended to fully apply to mined uranium ores, to refined uranium oxides, to uranium hexafluoride gas, and to uranium conversion facilities, as well as enrichment and subsequent stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. The Joint Standing Committe on Treaties (JSCT) recommended in 2008 that “the Australian Government lobbies the IAEA and the five declared nuclear weapons states under the NPT to make the safeguarding of all conversion facilities mandatory.”[6] However the Australian Government rejected the recommendation in its 2009 response to the JSCT report.[7]
  9. There is no resolution in sight to some of the most fundamental problems with safeguards such as countries invoking their right to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and developing a weapons capability as North Korea has done. More generally, responses to suspected non-compliance with safeguards agreements have been highly variable, ranging from inaction to economic sanctions to UN Security Council-mandated decommissioning programmes. Some states prefer to take matters into their own hands: Israel bombed and destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, the US bombed and destroyed a reactor in Iraq in 1991 and Israel bombed and destroyed a suspected reactor site in Syria in 2007.

In 1982, Mike Rann identified the core problem: “Again and again, it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first.”[8]


[1] For information on safeguards see the papers listed at

[2] See section 6 in: ‘The Nuclear Safeguards System: An Illusion of Protection‘, 2010.

[3] Mohamed El Baradei, 16 June 2009, ‘Director General’s Intervention on Budget at IAEA Board of Governors’,

[4] See section 4 in: ‘The Nuclear Safeguards System: An Illusion of Protection‘, 2010.

[5] IAEA, 1993, Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons: IAEA Safeguards in the 1990s.

[6] Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, 2008, ‘Report 94: Review into Treaties tabled on 14 May 2008’,

[7] Australian Government, 2009, ‘Government Response to Report 94 of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties: Australia-Russia Nuclear Cooperation Agreement’

[8] Mike Rann, March 1982, ‘Uranium: Play It Safe’.