Atom-Treaty Overhaul Needed, IAEA Lawyer Says

Restrictions on international monitors using data to ward off atomic-weapon development and the risks of reactor meltdowns must be overhauled, said a United Nations lawyer who has helped lead negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

International Atomic Energy Agency monitors currently cannot access data from an affiliated UN group that could enhance their ability to catch illicit weapons work and mitigate radiation threats. While the data, collected through a $1 billion network built by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization, is available to governments and researchers, the IAEA doesn’t have access because member states have failed to push for the change.

“The need for cooperation and coordination and the value of cooperation between CTBTO and the IAEA is so clear,” Laura Rockwood, the Vienna-based IAEA’s head of non-proliferation and policy, said yesterday in response to a question at a panel discussion. “It makes no sense whatsoever as a practical, technical mechanism that this impermeable curtain exists.”

Even as IAEA monitors account for declared nuclear material by visiting atomic sites worldwide, they don’t have the power to detect atmospheric atomic traces left by concealed uranium and plutonium processing. That prevents inspectors from early discovery of possible weapon activities at plutonium-producing reactors in countries like Iran and North Korea.

Krypton Gas

Iran has encouraged the IAEA to use the CTBTO’s detection technologies in order to counter accusations that the country is developing nuclear weapons. The data network can detect Krypton-85, the gas released when uranium is processed into plutonium.

“CTBTO data identifying a previously unknown source of Krypton-85 or other particulate radionuclides could be very important,” Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector and U.S. nuclear-weapon scientist, said today in an e-mailed reply to questions. “The IAEA and the CTBTO are limited by mandates of their member states.”

While the CTBTO’s treaty stipulates “each state party shall have the right to participate in the international exchange of data,” the IAEA cannot tap into the information without the consent of member countries.

“These treaty regimes are distinct, they have distinct members and distinct organs that take decisions,” CTBTO legal director Lisa Tabassi said yesterday in Vienna.

The value of data sharing between the organizations became evident in 2011 after Japan’s three Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear reactors melted down following an earthquake and tsunami. Member states demanded a data-sharing exception be made so that fallout from the accident could be traced.

“Sometime it takes a crisis to focus member states’ attention,” said Rockwood, who will retire later this year after more than two decades at the agency. Sentiment among governments may be “shifting” to allow for more sharing, she said.

Fukushima showed the IAEA how CTBTO data can be used “to understand future hazards in a release and be able to act in advance,” Kelley said. “Competent sharing would require preparation and practice in advance. Sharing on an ad-hoc basis is very dangerous.”

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