Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 April 2006
Issue No. 789
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nuclear dynamics

Dalia El-Sheikh conducts an exclusive interview with IAEA Director-General Mohamed El-Baradei

Mohamed El-Baradei

The IAEA opted for a diplomatic solution as far as the North Korean nuclear crisis is concerned, so why does it insist on sending the Iranian file to the Security Council?

In fact, in the case of both Iran and North Korea, the IAEA Board of Governors decided it was necessary to involve the United Nations Security Council. And in both cases, the aim was to have the Security Council put its weight into efforts to find a diplomatic solution. We should not forget that one of the Security Council's main functions is to settle disputes, through peaceful means.

Regarding North Korea, in December 2002, North Korea asked the IAEA to remove its surveillance cameras and inspectors from the country. By February 2003, the IAEA board had met in emergency session and reported the North Korean case to the Security Council. Since that time, the agency has not carried out any verification activities in the country, and thus cannot provide any assurance about its nuclear activities. The IAEA has not been involved in the subsequent diplomatic process (the six-party talks) to find a solution to this issue.

Regarding Iran, the decision of the Board of Governors to convey the Iran file to the Security Council does not equate with a failure of diplomacy and of the IAEA. Many member states continue to emphasise that the IAEA is the sole competent authority for verification, and they call on the agency to continue its work to resolve outstanding questions about Iran's nuclear programme. And even while the Security Council considers the matter of Iran, the IAEA and concerned member states will continue to search for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear situation.

For my part, I will continue to pursue every means possible to maintain the dialogue between Iran and the IAEA, to urge continued dialogue between Iran and other concerned countries, and to work towards a diplomatic solution.

Some believe that signing the NPT is akin to a punishment because if North Korea or Iran hadn't signed it, they wouldn't have been treated in such a way. Is this a fair assessment?

The NPT is a voluntary agreement that 189 states have joined in order the make the world a safer place, to reduce the possibilities of nuclear proliferation. Nuclear-Weapon States (NWSs) have agreed to pursue disarmament; Non-Nuclear-Weapon States (NNWSs) have agreed not to purse nuclear weapons and to place any significant nuclear facility and nuclear material under IAEA safeguards. In agreeing to these conditions, the NNWSs are then eligible to receive assistance on their peaceful nuclear programmes, including technical cooperation from the IAEA.

It is true that some countries over the years have chosen to remain outside the NPT, based on their individual security perceptions. Today, however, all countries with the exception of India, Pakistan and Israel have decided that it was in their interest to join the NPT.

In the cases of North Korea and Iran (or, for that matter, the previous cases of Libya and Iraq), these countries made a legally binding commitment, under the NPT, to conduct all nuclear activities under international safeguards -- but then decided to pursue some nuclear activities in secret. In the cases of North Korea, Libya and Iraq, that secret activity included the pursuit of nuclear weapons (Iran is an ongoing case, and no conclusion has been reached). It is natural that the international community takes this pursuit of nuclear weapons -- by countries who have agreed not to -- as a very serious matter.

But your question is a valid one. Until we see serious movement towards nuclear disarmament by the nuclear weapon states and a security system that does not rely on nuclear deterrence, there will continue to be a sense of double standards. As I have said before, a world of nuclear "haves and have- nots" is not sustainable. Eventually, some countries -- particularly those in areas of conflict -- will start to ask whether they are better off leaving the NPT. This would be a terrible development, because a world with more nuclear-weapon states is a much more dangerous world. What we need is to move away from nuclear weapons and not to increase the number of those who have them. This could be the beginning of the end of our world.

Will countries such as India, Pakistan and Israel eventually join the NPT?

India, Pakistan and Israel could only join the NPT as non-nuclear- weapon states. Unfortunately I do not see this happening without new initiatives and approaches.

But I have every confidence that, if the five NPT nuclear weapon states revive their actions -- in accordance with their commitments -- to make meaningful progress towards nuclear disarmament, India and Pakistan will join in this process, reducing and hopefully eventually eliminating their arsenals. In the case of Israel, I believe progress could be achieved through the initiation of security dialogue in the Middle East -- which would go hand-in-hand with the peace process in the region and which aims to establish a new security structure in the region.

You said that the Arab countries are dealing with the Israeli nuclear programme in an inappropriate manner. How should they deal with the issue?

As I mentioned above, the direction to pursue on the Israeli arms issue is to include it as a core issue of the peace process in the Middle East because of its intimate linkage with that process. This has not been done so far. I firmly believe there will be no lasting peace in the Middle East without a balanced security regime to support and consolidate that peace. And equally true, no party in the region will feel secure without a comprehensive peace.

A great deal of rhetoric has been expended over making the Middle East a region free from weapons of mass destruction. The establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region has been the subject of United Nations resolutions for 30 years. Yet little concrete work has been done and a feeling of frustration continues to prevail in the Arab world.

The only time the countries of the Middle East have sat together to discuss the issue was in the arms control working group that arose out of the Madrid peace process -- and early disagreements aborted that effort.

What is needed is a renewed security dialogue that covers all topics relevant to security in the region -- a dialogue that deals with the present security imbalance, a dialogue that proceeds in parallel with the peace process and with the participation of all parties concerned. This dialogue should have the objective, inter alia, of freeing the region of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. It should also be directed at limiting conventional weapons and putting in place effective confidence-building measures.

The United States and India have signed a treaty concerning nuclear cooperation. Does this treaty represent another threat to the NPT -- especially given that India is not a member of the NPT?

India already has nuclear weapons, and is not likely to renounce those weapons and join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state until the security situation changes. So I do not see this as a new NPT threat. The agreement does not change the proliferation situation.

The new United States-India agreement would be an important step, however, towards ensuring the safety and security of India's nuclear power plants, including especially those plants that are still to be built as part of India's ambitious nuclear energy programme. The agreement is also a first step towards bringing India closer as a partner in the non- proliferation and arms control regime -- a step that I hope will build confidence and lead to further progress. Properly implemented, this agreement should serve the interests of both India and the international community.

You have proposed the establishment of an international fuel bank. What is the significance of such a bank?

The control of access to sensitive nuclear technology has grown increasingly problematic in recent years. Far more countries have sophisticated engineering and industrial capacity. Six decades of research have created broad diversity in nuclear technology, making it more difficult to track procurement and sales. And electronic communication has simplified the transmission of component designs and the exchange of operating expertise.

This creates a markedly different situation than that anticipated by the founders of the NPT in 1970. Under NPT rules, there is nothing illegal about any state having enrichment or reprocessing technology -- processes that are basic to the production and recycling of nuclear reactor fuel -- even though these operations can also produce the high enriched uranium or plutonium that can be used in a nuclear weapon.

An increasing number of countries have sought to master these parts of the 'nuclear fuel cycle', both for economic reasons and, in some cases, as a good insurance policy for a rainy day -- a situation that would enable them to develop at least a crude nuclear weapon in a short span of time, should their security outlook change. Whatever the reason, this know-how essentially transforms them into a 'latent' nuclear-weapon state. That is, regardless of their peaceful intentions, they have now the capability to create weapon-usable nuclear material, which experts consider to be the most difficult step towards manufacture of a nuclear weapon. In today's environment, this margin of security is simply untenable.

The good news is that there may be a solution on the horizon. In 2004, I asked a group of experts to explore options for better control over these aspects of the fuel cycle. Their report, which was tabled in February 2005, as well as the ideas of others, have helped to shape my thinking on how such controls might be put in place.

This could occur through a series of measures. First, to provide assurance of supply of reactor technology and nuclear fuel. Second, to accept a time- limited moratorium (of perhaps five to 10 years) on new uranium enrichment and plutonium separation facilities -- at the very least for countries that do not currently have such technologies. Third, to establish a framework for multilateral management and control of the "back end" of the fuel cycle (for example spent fuel reprocessing and waste disposal). And, fourth, to create a similar framework for multilateral management and control of the "front end" of the fuel cycle (i.e. enrichment and fuel production).

Much attention is already being given to the first measure -- the assurance of supply. The importance of this measure is that, by providing reliable access to reactors and fuel, we remove the incentive or justification for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. In so doing, we could go a long way towards addressing current concerns about the dissemination of such capabilities. For this assurance of supply mechanism to be credible, it must be based on apolitical, objective, non-proliferation criteria. The key feature of such an arrangement is not simply availability, but reliability. Under the IAEA statute, the agency could act as the facilitator and guarantor of this assurance of supply mechanism.

I am encouraged by the range of supportive reactions to this initiative. Last summer a conference in Moscow discussed, among other multilateral approaches, the feasibility of fuel leasing. The uranium industry and the World Nuclear Association have set up a working group to explore strategies for fuel assurances.

The US announced that it would make available enough fuel for 10 reactor cores, to be used under an assurance of supply scheme. Russia has also recently indicated that it intends to make fuel available to the IAEA, to be used as part of an agency fuel bank. Given the rising expectation for the expanded use of nuclear energy in many countries, these multilateral approaches could offer clear advantages -- not just in terms of non-proliferation, but also in terms of safety, security and economics.

It has been mentioned that there are certain documents that may prove that Al-Qaeda seeks possession of mass destruction weapons. Do you believe that a terrorist group is capable of acquiring such weapons? And what about the so-called "dirty bomb"?

The IAEA maintains an "Illicit Trafficking Database" that tracks reported incidents of efforts to smuggle nuclear or radiological material. In the past decade, we have recorded more than 650 cases that involve efforts to smuggle such material. I am pleased to say that only a relatively small number of these cases have involved the nuclear material that could be used to make nuclear weapons (that is, high enriched uranium or plutonium).

But this gives me little comfort. The sheer volume of activity makes it clear that such a marketplace exists. Extremist groups have grown increasingly sophisticated, both in their approach to technology and their ability to carry out complex missions -- and have expressed a clear desire to acquire nuclear weapons. We must assume that, if an extremist group were to acquire nuclear or radiological material, they would not hesitate to use it.

This is why I consider that it is a critical part of the job of the IAEA to help countries to prevent this scenario from happening. That not only means securing all nuclear material of the type that could be used to construct a nuclear weapon, but also controlling the other types of nuclear material and radioactive sources that could be used to produce a "dirty bomb".

Most experts believe that it would be very difficult for a sub-national terrorist group to construct a nuclear weapon in secret, because of the sophisticated laboratory equipment and engineering skill required. On the other hand, the theft or illicit purchase of a nuclear weapon is a possibility, however unlikely.

What is perhaps more likely is the ability of a terrorist group to construct a "dirty bomb" -- a far less powerful device, but one which could still use normal explosives to spread radioactive contamination, and certainly to cause mass havoc and considerable financial damage.

In late 2001, the IAEA launched an ambitious worldwide campaign to assist countries in enhancing the security of all of these types of material. In the years since, other international and regional groups -- as well as some private organisations -- have also taken a leading role in this effort. Work is ongoing on every continent -- and over the past four years, experts estimate that perhaps 50 per cent of this work has been completed. But the vulnerability remains -- there is far more to be done.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 789 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Press review | Readers' corner | Environment | Culture | Features | Living | Sports | Cartoons | Chronicles | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map