Safeguards to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation

  • Most countries participate in international initiatives designed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
  • The international safeguards system has since 1970 successfully prevented the diversion of fissile materials into weapons. Its scope has been widened to address undeclared nuclear activities.
  • The IAEA undertakes regular inspections of civil nuclear facilities and audits the movement of nuclear materials through them.
  • Safeguards are backed by diplomatic and economic measures.

The initial development of nuclear technology was military, during World War II. Two nuclear bombs made from uranium-235 and plutonium-239 were dropped on Japan's Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively in August 1945 and these brought the long war to a sudden end. The immense and previously unimaginable power of the atom had been demonstrated. Then attention turned to civil applications. In the course of half a century nuclear technology has enabled access to a virtually unlimited source of energy at a time when constraints are arising on the use of fossil fuels. The question which frames this page is: To what extent and in what ways does nuclear power generation contribute to or alleviate the risk from nuclear weapons?

In the 1960s it was widely assumed that there would be 30-35 nuclear weapons states by the turn of the century. In fact there were eight – a tremendous testimony to the effectiveness of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its incentives both against weapons and for civil nuclear power, despite the baleful influence of the Cold War (1950s to 80s) which saw a massive build-up of nuclear weapons particularly by the USA and the Soviet Union. Possession of nuclear weapons is evidently for military deterrence, but the proposition that more of them in more countries would diminish warfare is not widely accepted, and is rejected as a basis for international policy.

The nuclear non-proliferation regime is much more than the NPT, although this is the pre-eminent international treaty on the subject. The regime includes treaties, conventions and common (multilateral and bilateral) arrangements covering security and physical protection, export controls, nuclear test-bans and, potentially, fissile material production cut-offs. The international community can apply pressure to states outside the NPT to make every possible effort to conform to the full range of international norms on nuclear non-proliferation that make up this regime. This was seen over 2007-08 with India. 

The NPT Origins and Objectives

Over almost 50 years the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards system under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been a conspicuous international success in curbing the diversion of civil uranium into military uses. It has involved cooperation in developing nuclear energy while ensuring that civil uranium, plutonium and associated plants are used only for peaceful purposes and do not contribute in any way to proliferation of nuclear weapons programs. In 1995 the NPT was extended indefinitely. Its scope has also been widened to include undeclared nuclear activities.

Most countries have renounced nuclear weapons, recognizing that proliferation of them would threaten rather than enhance national security. They have therefore embraced the NPT as a public commitment to use nuclear materials and technology only for peaceful purposes.

The successful conclusion, in 1968, of negotiations on the NPT (following resolution of the United Nations General Assembly) was a landmark in the history of non-proliferation. After coming into force in 1970, its indefinite extension in May 1995 was another. The NPT was essentially an agreement among the five nuclear weapons states and the other countries interested in nuclear technology. The deal was that assistance and cooperation would be traded for pledges, backed by international scrutiny, that no plant or material would be diverted to weapons' use. Those who refused to be part of the deal would be excluded from international cooperation or trade involving nuclear technology.

At present, 189 states plus Taiwan are parties to the NPT. These include all five declared Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) which had manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon before 1967: China, France, the Russian Federation, the UK and the USA. The main countries remaining outside the NPT are Israel, India and Pakistan, though North Korea has moved to join them. These all have weapons programs which have come to maturity since 1970, so they cannot join without renouncing and dismantling those. In 2008 special arrangements were agreed internationally for India, bringing it part way in, and its ratification of the Additional Protocol in 2014 put it on a similar footing to the five NWS.

The NPT's main objectives are to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, to provide security for non-nuclear weapon states which have given up the nuclear option, to encourage international cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to pursue negotiations in good faith towards nuclear disarmament leading to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

The most important factor underpinning the safeguards regime is international political pressure and how particular nations perceive their long-term security interests in relation to their immediate neighbours. The solution to nuclear weapons proliferation is thus political more than technical, and it certainly goes beyond the question of uranium availability. International pressure not to acquire weapons is enough to deter most states from developing a weapons program. The major risk of nuclear weapons' proliferation will always lie with countries which have not joined the NPT and which have significant unsafeguarded nuclear activities, and those which have joined but disregard their treaty commitments.

For further information on India and Pakistan, see the respective information pages. For information on Iran, North Korea, Israel, Iraq, and others, see the Appendix to this page.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

The IAEA was set up by unanimous resolution of the United Nations in 1957 to help nations develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Allied to this role since 1970 is the administration of safeguards arrangements. This provides assurance to the international community that individual countries are honouring their treaty commitments to use nuclear materials and facilities exclusively for peaceful purposes.

The IAEA therefore undertakes regular inspections of civil nuclear facilities to verify the accuracy of documentation supplied to it. The agency checks inventories and undertakes sampling and analysis of materials. Safeguards are designed to deter diversion of nuclear material by increasing the risk of early detection. They are complemented by controls on the export of sensitive technology from countries such as UK and USA through voluntary bodies such as the Nuclear Suppliers' Group. Safeguards are backed up by the threat of international sanctions.

Scope of safeguards

It is important to understand that nuclear safeguards are a means of reassurance whereby non-nuclear weapons states demonstrate to others that they are abiding by their peaceful commitments. They prevent nuclear proliferation in the same way that auditing procedures build confidence in proper financial conduct and prevent embezzlement. Their specific objective is to verify whether declared (usually traded) nuclear material remains within the civil nuclear fuel cycle and is being used solely for peaceful purposes or not.

Non-nuclear-weapons state parties to the NPT agree to accept technical safeguards measures applied by the IAEA. These require that operators of nuclear facilities maintain and declare detailed accounting records of all movements and transactions involving nuclear material. Almost 900 nuclear facilities and several hundred other locations in 57 non-nuclear-weapons countries are subject to regular inspection. Their records and the actual nuclear material are audited. Inspections by the IAEA are complemented by other measures such as surveillance cameras and instrumentation.

The aim of traditional IAEA safeguards is to deter the diversion of nuclear material from peaceful use by maximising the risk of early detection. At a broader level they provide assurance to the international community that countries are honouring their treaty commitments to use nuclear materials and facilities exclusively for peaceful purposes. In this way safeguards are a service both to the international community and to individual states, who recognize that it is in their own interest to demonstrate compliance with these commitments.

The inspections act as an alert system providing a warning of the possible diversion of nuclear material from peaceful activities. The system relies on;

  • Material Accountability – tracking all inward and outward transfers and the flow of materials in any nuclear facility. This includes sampling and analysis of nuclear material, on-site inspections, review and verification of operating records.
  • Physical Security – restricting access to nuclear materials at the site of use.
  • Containment and Surveillance – use of seals, automatic cameras and other instruments to detect unreported movement or tampering with nuclear materials, as well as spot checks on-site.

All NPT non-weapons states must accept these 'full-scope' safeguards, which apply to all nuclear facilities in the country. In the five weapons states plus the non-NPT states (India, Pakistan and Israel), facility-specific safeguards apply to relevant plants (see further section below). IAEA inspectors regularly visit these facilities to verify completeness and accuracy of records.

Uranium supplied to nuclear weapons states is not, under the NPT, covered by safeguards. However normally there is at least a "peaceful use" clause in the supply contract, and in the case of Australia, a bilateral safeguards agreement is required which does cover all uranium supplied and all materials arising from it (as "Australian obligated nuclear materials" – AONM). Neither the peaceful use clause nor the bilateral treaty mean that materials are restricted to facilities on the state's list of facilities eligible for IAEA inspection.

The NPT is supplemented by other safeguards systems such as those among certain European nations (Euratom Safeguards) and between individual countries (bilateral agreements) such as Australia and customer countries for its uranium, or Japan and the USA.

The terms of the NPT cannot be enforced by the IAEA itself, nor can nations be forced to sign the treaty. In reality, as shown in Iran and North Korea, safeguards are backed up by diplomatic, political and economic measures. 

Safeguards problems 1980s-90s

Iraq, Iran and North Korea illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of international safeguards. While accepting safeguards at declared facilities, Iraq and Iran had set up elaborate equipment elsewhere in an attempt to enrich uranium, in Iraq's case, to weapons grade. North Korea used research reactors (not commercial electricity-generating reactors) and a reprocessing plant to produce some weapons-grade plutonium.

The weakness of the NPT regime lay in the fact that no obvious diversion of material was involved. The uranium used as fuel probably came from indigenous sources, and the key nuclear facilities concerned were built by the countries themselves without being declared to the IAEA or placed safeguards arrangements. Iraq, as an NPT party, was obliged to declare all facilities but did not do so. Nor, more recently, did Iran. In North Korea, the activities concerned took place before the conclusion of its NPT safeguards agreement, using a Russian "research" reactor and clandestine reprocessing plant.

Nevertheless, the activities were detected and in Iraq and North Korea, brought under control using international diplomacy. In Iraq, a military defeat assisted this process, but North Korea posed possibly the most intractable situation confronted by the IAEA. This has since been matched by Iran.

So, while traditional safeguards easily verified the correctness of formal declarations by suspect states, in the 1990s attention turned to what might not have been declared, outside the known materials flows and facilities.

Addressing undeclared nuclear activities – the Additional Protocol

Following discovery of Iraq's clandestine programme, in 1993 a programme was initiated to strengthen and extend the classical safeguards system, and a model protocol was agreed by the IAEA Board of Governors in 1997. This was to boost the IAEA's ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities, including those with no connection to the civil fuel cycle.

Innovations were of two kinds. Some could be implemented on the basis of IAEA's existing legal authority through safeguards agreements and inspections. Others required further legal authority to be conferred through an Additional Protocol. This must be agreed by each non-weapons state with IAEA, as a supplement to their existing comprehensive safeguards agreement. NPT Weapons States (and India) have also agreed to accept the principles of the model Additional Protocol, though the function there is different.

Key elements of the model Additional Protocol:

  • The IAEA is given considerably more information on nuclear and nuclear-related activities, including R&D, production of uranium and thorium (regardless of whether it is traded) and nuclear-related imports and exports.
  • IAEA inspectors have greater rights of access. This includes any suspect location, at short notice (e.g. two hours), and the IAEA can deploy environmental sampling and remote monitoring techniques to detect illicit activities.
  • States must streamline administrative procedures so that IAEA inspectors get automatic visa renewal and can communicate more readily with IAEA headquarters.

All these elements enhance the IAEA's ability to provide assurances that all nuclear activities and material in the country concerned has been declared for safeguards purposes.

As of October 2016, 129 states plus Taiwan, Greenland and Euratom had Additional Protocols in force, and 17 more including Belarus and Iran had them approved and signed but not yet in force. Iran has said it was applying the Additional Protocol provisionally from January 2016. There are 70 states plus Taiwan with significant nuclear activities. Those remaining without an Additional Protocol include Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – all outside the NPT anyway. (See IAEA webpage on Status of the Additional Protocol.)

Further evolution of safeguards is towards evaluation of each state, taking account of its particular situation and the kind of nuclear materials it has. This will involve greater judgement on the part of IAEA and the development of effective methodologies which reassure NPT States.

Where non-weapons states have a safeguards agreement with the IAEA and an Additional Protocol in force, the IAEA is able to say each year not only that declared nuclear material remains in peaceful activities, but also that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities.

For Nuclear Weapons States, the purpose of the Additional Protocol is different, namely to provide the IAEA with information on nuclear supply to, and cooperation with, non-weapons states. Such information assists the IAEA in its objective of detecting any undeclared activities in non-weapons states. (In this context India is understood to be effectively a Nuclear Weapons State, and the Additional Protocol for it was agreed by the IAEA in March 2009, and ratified by India in June 2014.)

Limitations of safeguards

Apart from situations addressed by the Additional Protocol, the greatest risk of nuclear weapons proliferation lies with countries which have not joined the NPT and which have significant unsafeguarded nuclear activities. India, Pakistan and Israel are in this category. While safeguards apply to some of their activities, others remain beyond scrutiny.

A further concern is that countries may develop various sensitive nuclear fuel cycle facilities and research reactors under full safeguards and then subsequently opt out of the NPT. Bilateral agreements such as insisted upon by Australia and Canada for sale of uranium address this by including fallback provisions, but many countries are outside the scope of these agreements. If a nuclear-capable country does leave the NPT it is likely to be reported by the IAEA to the UN Security Council, just as if it were in breach of its safeguards agreement. Trade sanctions would then be likely.

IAEA safeguards together with bilateral safeguards applied under the NPT can, and do, ensure that uranium supplied by countries such as Australia and Canada does not contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation. In fact the worldwide application of those safeguards and the substantial world trade in uranium for nuclear electricity make the proliferation of nuclear weapons much less likely.

The Additional Protocol, once it is widely in force will provide credible assurance that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in the states concerned. This will be a major step forward in preventing nuclear proliferation.

By 2018, 133 of the 181 countries with safeguards agreements had ratified the Additional Protocol. A furhter 15 had signed the Additional Protocol but had not entered into force.

Safeguards in countries with nuclear weapons

In Nuclear Weapons States, IAEA safeguards apply under a "voluntary offer agreement". Where offered, facilities are put on each state's "list of facilities that are eligible for IAEA safeguards" and it is up to the IAEA to decide which (if any) to inspect. However, all these facilities must maintain IAEA-standard accounting.

  First weapons test Safeguards situation for nuclear power
All civil nuclear facilities are subject to IAEA safeguards. The National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) applies some materials accounting to all fuel cycle facilities and communicates with the IAEA.
All civil nuclear facilities are subject to IAEA safeguards.
IAEA safeguards not generally applied, though this is changing*.
All civil nuclear facilities are under Euratom safeguards, all civil facilities containing safeguards-obligated nuclear material are subject to IAEA safeguards.
All imported nuclear power plants are under IAEA safeguards, as is the Russian-supplied Shaanxi centrifuge enrichment plant. 
14 civil power reactors are under IAEA safeguards, along with all future civil facilities, pursuant to 2008 US-India agreement and 2014 Additional Protocol.
Civil power reactors under item-specific IAEA safeguards.
No nuclear power.
North Korea
No nuclear power.

* To date civil facilities have not been made subject to IAEA safeguards unless they are of value to IAEA, e.g. for training or experience. However, Angarsk international fuel cycle centre is subject to IAEA safeguards, and an increasing number of civil facilities are expected to be made subject to IAEA safeguards in the future due to increasing commerce.

India’s emergence as de facto weapons state under NPT

India's situation as a nuclear-armed country excluded it from the NPT* so this and the related lack of full-scope IAEA safeguards meant that India was isolated from world trade by the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (see below). A clean waiver to the trade embargo was agreed in September 2008 in recognition of the country's impeccable non-proliferation credentials. India has always been scrupulous in ensuring that its weapons material and technology are guarded against commercial or illicit export to other countries. 

* India could only join the NPT if it disarmed and joined as a Non-Nuclear Weapons State, which is politically impossible.

In December 2006 the US Congress passed legislation to enable moves towards nuclear trade with India. Then in July 2007 a nuclear cooperation agreement with India was finalized, opening the way for India's participation in international commerce in nuclear fuel and equipment and requiring India to put most of the country's nuclear power reactors under IAEA safeguards and close down the CIRUS research reactor by 2010. It would allow India to reprocess US-origin and other foreign-sourced nuclear fuel at a new national plant under IAEA safeguards. This would be used fuel arising from those 14 reactors designated as unambiguously civilian and under full IAEA safeguards. 

The IAEA greeted the deal as being "a creative break with the past" – where India was excluded from the NPT. After much delay in India's parliament, it then set up a new and comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, plus an Additional Protocol. The IAEA board approved this in July 2008, after the agreement had threatened to bring down the Indian government. The agreement is similar to those between the IAEA and Non-Nuclear Weapons States, notably INIFCIRC/66, the IAEA's information circular that lays out procedures for applying facility-specific safeguards, hence much more restrictive than many in India's parliament wanted. 

The next step in bringing India into the fold was the consensus resolution of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in September 2008 to exempt India from its rule of prohibiting trade with non members of the NPT. A bilateral trade agreement then went to US Congress for final approval. Similar agreements followed with Russia and France. The ultimate objective is to put India on the same footing as China in respect to responsibilities and trade opportunities, though it has had to accept much tighter international controls than other nuclear-armed countries.

The introduction to India's safeguards agreement with IAEA says that India's access to assured supplies of fresh fuel is an "essential basis" for New Delhi's acceptance of IAEA safeguards on some of its reactors and that India has a right to take "corrective measures to ensure uninterrupted operation of its civilian nuclear reactors in the event of disruption of foreign fuel supplies." But the introduction also says that India will "provide assurance against withdrawal of safeguarded nuclear material from civilian use at any time." In the course of NSG deliberations India also gave assurances regarding weapons testing.

In October 2008 US Congress passed the bill allowing civil nuclear trade with India, and a nuclear trade agreement was signed with France. The 2008 agreements ended 34 years of trade isolation on nuclear materials and technology. The CIRUS research reactor was shut down on 31 December 2010.

India's safeguards agreement with IAEA was signed early in 2009, though the timeframe for bringing the extra reactors under safeguards still had to be finalized. The Additional Protocol to the safeguards agreement was agreed by the IAEA Board in March 2009 and signed in May 2009 by India. The decision to ratify was announced under the new government in June 2014, with 20 facilities listed, including six at the Nuclear Fuel Complex, Hyderabad and two stores at Tarapur, plus 12 reactors. The Additional Protocol came into force on 25 July 2014, giving the IAEA enhanced access to India’s civil power facilities.

In April 2012 India told the UN Security Council that given its ability and willingness to promote global non-proliferation objectives, and that it already adhered to the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), "as a country with the ability and willingness to promote global non-proliferation objectives, we believe that the next logical step is India's membership of the four export control regimes." The other two ‘regimes’ are the informal Australia Group (re chemical and biological weapons) and the Wassenaar Arrangement on export control for conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies. India also supports the early commencement of negotiations in the Conference of Disarmament in Geneva on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Following ratification of the Additional Protocol, India will pursue membership of these four export control regimes.

Apart from safeguards, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty is designed particularly to cap the production of weapons-grade fissile materials in both NPT Nuclear Weapons States and India, Pakistan and Israel. India has expressed support for a verifiable Cut-off Treaty, China, Pakistan and Iran are opposed to one. The USA is not keen on such a Treaty being verifiable.

Other IAEA developments

In May 1995, NPT parties reaffirmed their commitment to a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty to prohibit the production of any further fissile material for weapons. This aims to complement the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty agreed in 1996 and to codify commitments made by USA, UK, France and Russia to cease production of weapons material, as well as putting a similar ban on China. This treaty would also put more pressure on Israel, India and Pakistan to agree to international verification.

Another initiative relates to plutonium (Pu) and spent fuel. For uranium, safeguards take account of its nature: natural, depleted, low-enriched or high-enriched (above 20% U-235) and the corresponding degree of concern regarding proliferation. A similarly differentiated approach is being considered for plutonium. Two or three categories are possible: degraded Pu (e.g. in high-burnup fuel), low-grade Pu (e.g. separated from spent fuel of normal burnup) and high-grade Pu (e.g. from weapons or low-burnup fuel). The first two correspond to what is generally known as reactor-grade plutonium, sometimes defined as having more than 19% non-fissile isotopes.

Additional arrangements 

There are also several other treaties and arrangements designed to reduce the risk of civil nuclear power's contributing to weapons proliferation.

Implementation of IAEA safeguards in the non-nuclear weapon states of the EU is governed by a Verification Agreement between the country concerned, EURATOM and the IAEA. Safeguards activities are carried out jointly by the IAEA and EURATOM, and a 1992 agreement enables the IAEA itself to deploy more of its resources in member states where independent regional safeguards systems are not in place.

Shortly after entry into force of the NPT, multilateral consultations on nuclear export controls led to the establishment of two separate mechanisms for dealing with nuclear exports: the Zangger Committee in 1971 and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 1975.

The Zangger Committee, also known as the Non Proliferation Treaty Exporters Committee, was set up to consider how procedures for exports of nuclear material and equipment related to NPT commitments. In August 1974 the committee produced a trigger list of items which would require the application of IAEA safeguards if exported to a Non-Nuclear Weapons State which was not party to the NPT. The trigger list is regularly updated. The Zangger Committee now has 31 member states.

Sensitive nuclear technologies 

While nuclear power reactors themselves are not a proliferation concern, enrichment and reprocessing technologies are open to use for other purposes, and have been the cause of proliferation through illicit or unsafeguarded use, as outlined in the Appendix to this page. This problem is largely addressed in the Additional Protocol, as described above, and in fact such sensitive nuclear technologies (SNT) are largely confined to NPT weapons states plus Japan. For most countries they would make no economic sense, and several recent initiatives focus on how to create conditions which make them unattractive propositions.

The NPT itself refers to the “inalienable” right to use nuclear energy, but does not guarantee the right to develop SNT. Nor, however, does the it explicitly limit the development of SNT, other than by the fundamental obligations of Non-Nuclear Weapons States not to acquire (or seek to acquire) nuclear weapons, and to place all their nuclear material under IAEA safeguards.

Current approaches to control the spread of SNT have focused on measures against the transfer of equipment, components, special materials and technology, through national export controls and multilateral coordination within the Nuclear Suppliers Group (see below). Also of course any enrichment or reprocessing plant in an NPT Non-Nuclear Weapons State must be fully safeguarded. However, these approaches do not fully address the problems of illicit acquisition of enrichment technology and clandestine development of indigenous enrichment technology. Over the next five to ten years, illicit nuclear trade is likely to be conducted by Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, and possibly other nations seeking nuclear capabilities or wanting to maintain or improve existing nuclear weapons arsenals. Additional states in regions of proliferation concern may utilize smuggling methods to acquire advanced, ostensibly civilian, nuclear technology including uranium enrichment and plutonium production and separation capabilities. Stopping this trade will remain difficult, but is imperative.*

* Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) 2013.

While safeguards are an essential part of international confidence-building, they cannot alone provide assurance about a country’s future intent. The concern is that an enrichment or reprocessing facility under safeguards today could be used as the basis for break-out from non-proliferation commitments in the future, and Iran epitomizes this concern. In the case of enrichment, a centrifuge plant using LEU feed could produce sufficient HEU for a nuclear weapon in a relatively short time. Hence there is some diplomatic pressure to limit the countries with SNT facilities to those regarded as presenting a low proliferation risk. One initiative to this end is the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC), formerly known as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) – see separate page.

These matters are being addressed both politically and technically.

Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)

The NSG, formerly known as the London Group or London Suppliers Group, was set up in 1974 after India exploded its first nuclear device. The main reason for the group's formation was to bring in France, a major nuclear supplier nation which was not then party to the NPT. It included both members and non-members of the Zangger Committee. The group communicated its guidelines, essentially a set of export rules, to the IAEA in 1978.

The NSG Guidelines were to ensure that transfers of nuclear material or equipment would not be diverted to unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle or nuclear explosive activities, and formal government assurances to this effect were required from recipients. The Guidelines also recognized the need for physical protection measures in the transfer of sensitive facilities, technology and weapons-usable materials, and strengthened re-transfer provisions.

The NSG began with seven members – the USA, the former USSR, the UK, France, Germany, Canada and Japan – but now includes 48 countries. It was a key to bringing India more fully under safeguards in 2008 and opening up trade on condition that its weapons-related facilities were quarantined. India has attempted to join the NSG. China in 2019 stated that India must sign the NPT before it would allow it to join the NSG.


Civil nuclear power has not been the cause of or route to nuclear weapons in any country that has nuclear weapons, and no uranium traded for electricity production has ever been diverted for military use. All nuclear weapons programmes have either preceded or risen independently of civil nuclear power*, as shown most recently by North Korea. No country is without plenty of uranium in the small quantities needed for a few weapons.

* An exception may have been South Africa.

Former US Vice-President Al Gore said (18/9/06): "During my eight years in the White House, every nuclear weapons proliferation issue we dealt with was connected to a nuclear reactor program. Today, the dangerous weapons programs in both Iran and North Korea are linked to their civilian reactor programs." He is not correct. Iran has failed to convince anyone that its formerly clandestine enrichment programme has anything to do with its civil nuclear power reactors, and North Korea has no civil reactor programme. In respect to India and Pakistan, which he may have had in mind, there is evidently a link between military and civil, but that is part of the reason they are outside the NPT.

Perspective is relevant: As little as five tonnes of natural uranium is required to produce a nuclear weapon. Uranium is ubiquitous, and if cost is no object it could be recovered in such quantities from most granites, or from seawater – sources which would be quite uneconomic for commercial use. In contrast, world trade for electricity production is almost 70,000 tonnes of uranium per year, all of which can be accounted for.

There is no chance that the resurgent problem of nuclear weapons proliferation will be solved by turning away from nuclear power or ceasing trade in the tens of thousands of tonnes each year needed for it. 

Nuclear materials:

Uranium processed for electricity generation is not useable for weapons. The uranium used in power reactor fuel for electricity generation is typically enriched to about 3-4% of the isotope U-235, compared with weapons-grade which is over 90% U-235. For safeguards purposes uranium is deemed to be 'highly enriched' when it reaches 20% U-235. Few countries possess the technological knowledge or the facilities to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Plutonium is produced in the reactor core from a proportion of the uranium fuel. Plutonium contained in spent fuel elements is typically about 60-70% Pu-239, compared with weapons-grade plutonium which is more than 93% Pu-239. Weapons-grade plutonium is not produced in commercial power reactors but in a 'production' reactor operated with frequent fuel changes to produce low-burnup material with a high proportion of Pu-239.

The only use for 'reactor grade' plutonium is as a nuclear fuel, after it is separated from the high-level wastes by reprocessing. It is not and has never been used for weapons, due to the relatively high rate of spontaneous fission and radiation from the heavier isotopes such as Pu-240 making any such attempted use fraught with great uncertainties.

Further information: see appendices on Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (below) and Nuclear Proliferation Case Studies.

Notes & references

General sources

Australian Safeguards & Non-proliferation Office, Annual Reports


Australian Safeguards Policy

NB: this is very similar to Canada's policy administered by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).  It is included here as an example of best practice by two leading uranium export countries.

Australia's uranium is sold for exclusively peaceful purposes, namely electric power generation and related research and development activities. The main components of Australia's safeguards policy are:

(1) Careful selection of those countries eligible for the supply of Australian uranium:

  • In the case of non-nuclear-weapons States, sales are made only to countries which are parties to the NPT. These have renounced the nuclear weapons option and accept full-scope IAEA safeguards applying to all their nuclear-related activities;
  • In the case of nuclear weapons States, which must also be parties to the NPT, sales require an assurance that uranium will not be diverted to military or explosive purposes and that it will be subject to IAEA safeguards.

(2) Countries wishing to import Australian uranium must conclude a bilateral safeguards agreement with Australia. Provisions include:

  • prior Australian consent to any Australian obligated nuclear material (AONM) being transferred to a third party, enriched beyond 20% uranium-235, or reprocessed. Transfers are permitted only within Australia's network of bilateral safeguards.
  • fallback safeguards (contingency arrangements to ensure the continued safeguarding of material already present in an importing country in case safeguards under the NPT ever cease to apply);

(3) Strong support for the NPT and IAEA safeguards, including the Additional Protocol, with IAEA monitoring to apply.

When adopted in 1977, this was a more rigorous safeguards policy than that of any country supplying uranium to world markets. However, the approach is very similar to that of the USA and Canada.

Australia has 25 bilateral safeguards agreements covering over 40 countries (the Euratom agreement covering all 28 countries in the EU, giving some overlap). Those with the UAE, India and Ukraine are the latest. It has always taken the position that rigorous bilateral safeguards are an important and effective complement to the international safeguards system, and it may be unique in applying safeguards to all uranium supplied to nuclear weapons states.

Australia's position as a major uranium exporter is influential in the ongoing development of international safeguards and other non-proliferation measures, through membership of the IAEA Board of Governors, participation in international expert groups and its safeguards research program in support of the IAEA.

Australian Safeguards Office

The Australian Safeguards & Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) regulates the system of bilateral safeguards applying to Australian uranium exports based on customer countries being parties to the NPT. It also administers the domestic safeguards system required by Australia's own NPT agreement with the IAEA.

In addition, ASNO keeps account of nuclear material and associated items in Australia through its administration of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987. ASNO provides information to the IAEA on the small amount of nuclear material in Australia which is subject to safeguards (including 6 tonnes of DU in medical and industrial radiography equipment), and on uranium exports. It also facilitates IAEA inspections, including those under the Additional Protocol.

Australia has in place an accounting system that follows uranium from the time it is produced and packed for export, to the time it is reprocessed or stored as nuclear waste, anywhere in the world. It also includes plutonium which is in the spent fuel or recovered from it. All documentation relating to AONM is carefully monitored and any apparent discrepancies are taken up with the country concerned. There have been no unreconciled differences in accounting for AONM. This system operates in addition to safeguards applied by the IAEA which keep track of the movement of nuclear materials through overseas facilities and verify inventories.

One aspect of the accounting system is the possibility of obligation exchanges involving equivalent nuclear material held by a single utility or between different utilities. Exchanges are permitted, to simplify accounting and surveillance, provided that they do not result in reducing either the quality or quantity of material subject to Australian safeguards obligations. In low-enriched uranium the focus is on U-235 content.

Each year the ASNO reports to the Australian Parliament on its activities and its accounts of nuclear materials. 

Australian Obligated Nuclear Material

(From the 1999 Annual Report of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, DFAT)

A characteristic of the civil nuclear fuel cycle is the international interdependence of facility operators and power utilities. Apart from the nuclear-weapon States, it is unusual for a country to be entirely self-contained in the processing of uranium for civil use - and even in the case of the nuclear-weapon States, power utilities will seek the most favourable financial terms, often going to processors in other countries. Thus it is not unusual, for example, for a Japanese utility buying Australian uranium to have the uranium converted to uranium hexafluoride in Canada, enriched in France, fabricated into fuel in Japan, and reprocessed in the United Kingdom. The international flow of nuclear material enhances safeguards accountability, through 'transit matching' of transfers at the different stages of the fuel cycle.

The international nature of nuclear material flows means that uranium from many sources is routinely mixed during processes such as conversion and enrichment. Uranium is termed a 'fungible' commodity, that is, at these processing stages uranium from any source is identical to uranium from any other - it is not possible physically to differentiate the origin of the uranium. This is not unique to uranium, but is also the case with a number of other commodities. The fungibility of uranium has led to the establishment of conventions used universally in the industry and in the application of safeguards, namely equivalence and proportionality. These are discussed below.

Because of the impossibility of physically identifying 'Australian atoms', and also because Australian obligations apply not just to uranium as it moves through the different stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, but also to material generated through the use of that uranium, e.g. plutonium produced through the irradiation of uranium fuel in a reactor, the obligations under Australia's various bilateral safeguards agreements are applied to Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (AONM). 'AONM' is a shorthand way of describing the nuclear material which is subject to the provisions of the particular bilateral agreement.

This approach is also used by those other countries applying bilateral safeguards comparable to Australia's, principally the United States and Canada. These countries attach a safeguards 'obligation' to nuclear material which they upgrade, hence giving rise to the situation of 'multi-labelling', for example, AONM enriched in the US will also become US obligated nuclear material (USONM), and its subsequent use will have to meet the requirements of both Australian and US agreements. This is a common situation, that is, a significant proportion of AONM is also characterized as USONM and is accounted for both to ASNO and its US counterpart (the US DOE).

The equivalence principle provides that where AONM loses its separate identity because of process characteristics (e.g. mixing), an equivalent quantity is designated AONM, based on the fact that atoms or molecules of the same substance are indistinguishable, any one atom or molecule being identical to any other of the same substance. In such circumstances, equivalent quantities of the products of such nuclear material may be derived by calculation or from operating plant parameters. It should be noted that the principle of equivalence does not permit substitution by a lower quality material, e.g. enriched uranium cannot be replaced by natural or depleted uranium.

The proportionality principle provides that where AONM is mixed with other nuclear material, and is processed or irradiated, a proportion of the resulting material will be regarded as AONM corresponding to the same proportion as was AONM initially.

Some people are concerned that the operation of the equivalence principle means there cannot be assurance that 'Australian atoms' do not enter military programs. This overlooks the realities of the situation, that uranium atoms are indistinguishable from one another and there is no practical way of attaching 'flags' to atoms. The objective of Australia's bilateral agreements is to ensure that AONM in no way materially contributes to or enhances any military purpose. Even if AONM were to be in a processing stream with nuclear material subsequently withdrawn for military use, the presence of the AONM would add nothing to the quantity or quality of the military material (NB as noted elsewhere in the Annual Report, those nuclear-weapon States eligible for the supply of Australian uranium have ceased production of fissile material for nuclear weapons).

Accounting for AONM

Australia's bilateral partners holding AONM are required to maintain detailed records of transactions involving AONM, and ASNO's counterpart organizations are required to submit regular reports, consent requests, transfer and receipt documentation to ASNO. ASNO accounts for AONM on the basis of:

  • reports from each bilateral partner;
  • shipping and transfer documentation;
  • calculations of process losses and nuclear consumption, and nuclear production;
  • knowledge of the fuel cycle in each country;
  • regular liaison with counterpart organisations and with industry;
  • reconciliation of any discrepancies with counterparts.


Nuclear Proliferation Case Studies