THE BLOG
11/04/2010 01:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday's Tools Hamper Today's Nuclear Monitoring

About 700 scientists and non-proliferation specialists are convening in Vienna for a symposium this week (November 1-5) on future challenges for nuclear monitoring. At the top of the priority list should be making sure that the International Atomic Energy Agency has the money, the staff, the equipment and the systems to monitor the expected resurgence of nuclear energy around the world.

By all serious projections, nuclear power facilities are going to expand steadily in the next two decades, after years of very modest growth. One credible estimate says the world's nuclear electric generating capacity will increase by at least one-fourth by 2030 -- and could double.

That expansion will necessarily spread the potential availability of nuclear technology and materials. The IAEA, where I worked for 27 years until I stepped down in September as deputy director general, now inspects about 200 nuclear power reactors around the globe -- and expects the total to grow to as many as 350 reactors by 2030. The number of sites producing nuclear fuel is also expected to grow by 20 percent.

Countries inside and outside the Nonproliferation Treaty are expanding a range of nuclear activities, so that there will be more nuclear materials in play at all stages, from uranium mining to enrichment, fuel fabrication and reprocessing.

The only thing not growing is our capacity to monitor all this expanded nuclear activity.

During the last 10 years, the amount of nuclear material under IAEA safeguards has increased by 50 percent -- while the overall actual inspection rate has declined from about 10,000 inspection days a year to about 8,200 days.

The IAEA's budget has remained flat in recent years -- and, at this stage, it looks like that it even be actually cut. This has led to degradation of laboratories, training and IT systems that are now in dire need of major investments and overhaul.

The world's leading governments need to step up and live up to their commitment made at the global nuclear summit called by President Obama in April 2010 if they seriously want to secure all nuclear materials within four years -- and still allow safe nuclear expansion.

With money tight for monitoring and safeguards, the IAEA and other enforcement agencies also need to do more with less, and exploit smarter verification techniques and technologies. The role of the IAEA, which the world established in 1957 to keep nuclear technologies safe and secure, also will need to evolve to meet the fast-changing landscape in this nuclear renaissance.

For example, the IAEA could be asked to take on verification of nuclear materials released from military programs. This would allow a contribution not only to non-proliferation but also to disarmament. The IAEA is now negotiating with Russia and the United States on the verification of plutonium disposal from nuclear weapons programs as they are decommissioned.

This program would dispose of 34 tons of plutonium, equivalent to about 5,000 nuclear weapons devices. This is part of the "megatons to megawatts" initiative outlined by President Obama in his Prague speech in May 2009.

Building the trust to make that journey successfully will require innovations in verification procedures to lead ultimately to a negotiated halt to the production of any weapons-grade nuclear materials. It's not enough to rely on scientific and technological innovations in safeguarding nuclear materials. It also demands an assessment by world leaders of the entire structure of nuclear-related treaties and oversight agencies, an alphabet soup of acronyms.

When we look back at the proliferation cases over the last two decades (Iran, North Korea, the AQ Khan network in Pakistan), there has been practically no diversion of materials declared to the IAEA. The problems have come from undeclared nuclear material at undeclared facilities. So a key goal has to be to strengthen the IAEA's capacity to detect undeclared activities.

Much of the nuclear expansion will occur in the Far East, the Middle East and South Asia. Many of these countries have limited if any nuclear experience, and they haven't built the regulatory bodies they need to assure accounting and control. The IAEA will need to be equipped to help meet these needs.

New reactor and fuel cycle technologies will require novel safeguard approaches and techniques. The challenge will be for the scientists and inspectors to keep up with them -- and for their governments to ensure they have the resources to keep emerging nuclear programs safe.