Special Inspections

Mar 04 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Andreas Persbo, London

Last week’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Syria was widely anticipated. The country has been under suspicions of non-compliance with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for some time. The background is well-known. In September 2007, the Israeli Air Force suddenly and without warning bombed a facility in the middle of the Syrian desert. The Syrian and Israeli governments then remained surprisingly tight-lipped about the strike. The Israelis did not want to implicate an ally whose airspace they used for the strike. The Syrians seemingly only wanted to hush up the affair as quickly as possible.

For its part, the IAEA, faced with very little open-source information on the site itself and two member states who didn’t want to talk about it, did nothing to investigate the matter further. Meanwhile, the Syrians got busy clearing up the site. As the IAEA notes in its latest report: ‘by the end of October 2007, large scale clearing and levelling operations had taken place at the site which had removed or obscured the remains of the destroyed building’ (GOV/2011/8). The ‘destroyed building’ in question was widely suspected to be an uncompleted graphite-moderated natural-uranium fuelled reactor---supplied by the North Korean government no less.

It was June 2008 before the IAEA first visited the site and took samples. Later analysis showed ‘particles of anthropogenic natural uranium’ nearby, indicating the processing of uranium. It could have been natural uranium fuel---or it could have been something else. The Syrians themselves said that the Israeli Air Force used the uranium in their munitions. The IAEA is not entirely convinced by this explanation.
Since then, the Agency has repeatedly requested access to information, material, equipment and locations in Syria. Their overtures, however, have been met by silence. And this silence has led some to forcefully call for a ‘special inspection’ to be deployed into Syria. On 26 February 2009, for instance, James Acton, Mark Fitzpatrick and Pierre Goldschmidt wrote that:
"Syria is the textbook definition of a case in which a special inspection is merited. If the IAEA fails to ask for one, it will hand future states suspected of non-compliance an extraordinarily powerful precedent to use in opposing a special inspection request. IAEA officials regularly complain about their lack of legal authority—and rightly so. But, in this instance, they will have only themselves to blame if they let the authority that they do have atrophy" (Carnegie Endowment, Proliferation Analysis, February 2009).
Over the past year, there were few references in the media about the the need to invoke this tool. Lately, however, it would seem like diplomatic pressure is increasing on the IAEA. Indeed, in the run-up to next week’s meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, several observers have speculated that the Director-General would call for a special inspection in the country. This did not happen, as the Director-General’s recently issued report shows, and rumours are now circulating that several IAEA Governors will refrain from pushing the issue at next week’s meeting.
Special inspections
The special inspection tool itself has been around for a while. It features in the facility-specific safeguards agreement (INFCIRC/66) as well as the comprehensive safeguards agreement (INFCIRC/153) obligatory for all non-nuclear-weapon state parties to the NPT.
There are two principal routes to getting a special inspection agreed. First, the state itself can submit a special report, which then will have to be verified by a special inspection. Second, the IAEA may consider that information made available to it by the state (including explanations from the state as well as information gathered through routine inspections) is not adequate for it to fulfill its responsibilities under its comprehensive safeguards agreement. In the latter case, the IAEA should, in other words, have some indication that not all relevant nuclear material, or relevant facilities, in the country has been declared.
Two special inspections have been invoked to date. The first, on the invitation by the Romanian government aimed to clear up misunderstandings surrounding the country’s large nuclear fuel cycle. The second was invoked against North Korea, after information had come to light that indicated that the country had not been entirely forthcoming in its initial declaration. The IAEA so has some experience in invoking special inspections using both of the two principal routes.
Consultation is key
The special inspection tool is subject to any consultations between the IAEA and the inspected state. The Board of Governors, when deciding on the last special inspection in 1992 (North Korea, even though the inspection in question was blocked by the government in Pyongyang), reaffirmed the Agency’s right to carry out these inspections at undeclared locations. However, the agreement itself clearly stipulates that such access should be obtained in agreement with the inspected state party. If the state doesn’t agree with the Agency, paragraph 18 of INFCIRC/153 clearly lays out the procedure:

"The Agreement should provide that if the Board, upon report of the Director General, decides that an action by the State is essential and urgent in order  to ensure verification that nuclear material subject to safeguards under the Agreement is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices the Board shall be able to call upon the State to take the required action without delay, irrespective of whether procedures for the settlement of a dispute have been invoked."

It is very likely, at that point, that the state will not heed the Board’s call. The Board then has the option to report this fact to the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly. It would also notify all IAEA member states that it has been unable to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear materials from peaceful use.
The techniques deployed during a special inspection are similar to those of routine inspections. The IAEA has a right to:
1. Examine records;
2. Make independent measurements of all nuclear materials subject to safeguards under the agreement;
3. Verify the functioning and calibration of equipment;
4. And use other objective measures which has been demonstrated to be technically feasible.
Calling an inspection: what to gain, what to loose?
The problem with the special inspection is that it is likely to go unheeded unless the state itself requests it (through submitting a special report). There is only one case, of course, to base this conclusion on, and that is North Korea. It still makes sense to assume that this is the likely outcome. If the state is hiding something, it will have little incentive to invite inspectors to view the very secrets it wishes to protect. It could attempt to control the special inspection, by having an elaborate deception strategy in place. If the IAEA, for instance, requests access to installations which are irrelevant, the state could even afford this access. After the fact, it can broadcast to the world that it has done everything that the IAEA have asked for---and that the Agency found nothing. But the risk is, of course, that the IAEA will know what it is looking for. And once the precedence of giving access has been set, it is very difficult to backtrack.
So, in most cases where an inspection is called against the will of the inspected state, it is likely to go straight to the Board of Governors for further action. Unless the state is under intense international pressure, a special inspection request is therefore likely to shut down the inspection effort before it has even started. This, naturally, doesn’t progress the investigation at all. A special inspection should, from that perspective, only be called if there is a reasonable chance that the state will accommodate it.
From another perspective, however, it may be desirable to call the inspection anyway. If the Director-General of the IAEA feels that there is very little room for further progress in inspections whatsoever, he may feel inclined to draw the line under the effort by invoking the inspection tool. This would, after all, signal that the Agency is close to drawing a conclusion that it can no longer certify that all materials remain in peaceful use. The special inspection request represents ‘the final offer’ from the Agency, after which the issue will be raised with the UN Security Council and the General Assembly. This threat could, possibly, act as an incentive for the stalling state to cooperate with inspectors.


Last changed: Jul 08 2011 at 3:22 PM