Moving the starting point of nuclear safeguards

Opinion

Moving the starting point of nuclear safeguards

Gaps in controls in the production and trade of natural uranium, coupled with persistent proliferation threats from state and non-state actors, increase concerns over the diversion of source materials, i.e. the introduction of undeclared feed for conversion, fuel fabrication or enrichment plants. Not surprisingly, over the past decade, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been moving its safeguards system to capture more and more of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. The first step occurred in 2003 with Policy Paper 18 (PP18) which reinterpreted the starting point of full scope safeguards, specifically to the point of uranyl nitrate, affecting safeguards implementation in non-nuclear weapons states with both a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) and the Additional Protocol.

Consequently by ‘moving up’ the starting point, more nuclear material in non-nuclear weapons states with conversion facilities now fall under the definition of nuclear material subject to safeguards under Article 34(c) of INFCIRC/153-type safeguards agreements. Today, the IAEA is considering yet again moving the starting point further upstream. Policy Paper 21 would clarify the uranium milling/processing of uranium ore concentrates and uranium-bearing solutions that occur prior to the stage of uranium conversion that would be captured under full scope safeguards. 

The Starting Point
Natural uranium is considered to be source material under the IAEA Statute and thus a type of nuclear material, as defined in IAEA document, INFCIRC/153 of 1972, which defines the starting point of full safeguards (i.e. the application of the full set of accountancy and control provisions on nuclear material inventory). These safeguards, however, do ’not apply to material in mining or ore processing activities’ (emphasis added). Paragraph 34(c) is commonly referred to as ‘the starting point of safeguards’, stating that:

"When any nuclear material of a composition and purity suitable for fuel fabrication or for being isotopically enriched leaves the plant or the process stage in which it has been produced, or when such nuclear material, or any other nuclear material produced at a later stage in the nuclear fuel cycle, is imported into the State, the nuclear material shall become subject to the other safeguards procedures specified in the Agreement."

Safeguards, therefore, begin when nuclear material ‘leaves the plant or process stage’, historically interpreted as the output of conversion plants (i.e., Uranium Hexafluoride or UF6.)  In 2003, the IAEA re-interpreted this definition in its Policy Paper 18 which extended safeguards to the production of purified uranyl nitrate.  In Canada, this meant moving the starting point for the implementation of safeguards to when drums of yellowcake were added to production lines.  This marked the first time that Agency safeguards captured Cameco’s Blind River refinery plant in Canada. The new starting point, however, meant bypassing  the tens of thousands of drums stored at the site and therefore uranium ore concentrate (UOC, commonly referred to as ‘yellowcake’), remains a ‘pre-34c’ material and therefore not subject to the full scope of IAEA accountancy and control provisions. 

UOC is used however to feed subsequent stages of the nuclear supply chain and therefore the IAEA requires information on exports (Paragraph 34a) and imports (Paragraph 34b). In other words, if a pre-34c material is traded for eventual use in a nuclear reactor, this must be recorded and reported. This includes material containing even trace quantities of uranium or thorium (such as phosphates, mineral sands, coal, rare earth elements) if such material is exported for nuclear purposes. If such material is not destined for use in the nuclear supply chain, then reporting is exempt. This reporting of exports and imports have historically been the only safeguards applied to source material.

In 1997, the IAEA attempted to mitigate the reporting gap on source material with the passing of the Model Additional Protocol (INFCIRC/540), a voluntary agreement which grants the IAEA complementary inspection authority beyond that of comprehensive safeguards agreements. Articles 2.a(v) and (vi) requires annual reporting on uranium and thorium holdings, along with reporting on exports and imports of pre-34c material for non-nuclear purposes (although this information does not require detailed nuclear material accountancy). These requirements formalise the need for Additional Protocol states to apply prudent controls and evaluate the risk that uranium will be extracted for nuclear purposes.  For those without comprehensive safeguards agreements (let alone the Additional Protocol), there are no legal obligations to track secondary uranium sources.

Moving Forward
Currently, with Policy Paper 21, the Agency is trying to clarify the certain chemical forms of uranium that fall under paragraph 34c. The paper expands on the definition for 34c material to include certain chemical forms of uranium ore concentrates and uranium-bearing solutions that are ‘pure’ and thus suitable for fuel fabrication, i.e. without further processing in a conversion plant. The new definition could bring safeguards to forward to the product of uranium mills and concentration plants, i.e. drums of yellowcake which will create new obligations for state regulatory authorities, industry and facility operators and new verification responsibilities for the IAEA. Uranium suppliers such as Australia, Canada and Kazakhstan and others with mills and concentration plants will need to have the necessary domestic regulatory infrastructure, protocols and processes in place to meet additional reporting requirements to the IAEA. In turn, the Agency will need to evaluate process controls and material accountancy measures currently in place at milling/concentration facilities to develop an overall approach for meeting its verification responsibilities. The IAEA will also need to decide what level of inspection effort will be devoted to mills and ore concentration plants in relation to its current financial and personnel resource constraints.

So, why is the IAEA doing this? In large part because of technological advances in processing where today some suppliers are advertising their product as pure enough for fuel fabrication. Another reason is the safeguards gap at the level of source material where a number of proliferators have exploited loopholes to acquire uranium from ores or yellowcake where minimal international controls have existed. As uranium mining has expanded into states with little or no nuclear regulatory systems, there has been more of a need to clarify 34c material. While many supplier states may not be pleased with Policy Paper 21, the IAEA argues that the series of policy papers are internal documents and thus fully within their legal remit to introduce and apply. The paper will be contested by a number of member states, but it is an indication of where the IAEA is moving and what the future of safeguards and its starting point is heading.

This was originally published by Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier, March 15, 2015