Accelerating Safeguards Innovations

By Valeriia Hesse

VIENNA, February 2022

The spread of nuclear energy around the world requires devising new strategies for deterring proliferation of nuclear weapons. Some modern safeguards challenges are associated with new nuclear and related technologies as well as new reactor types (generation IV, small modular reactors, floating power plants). Among them are institutional and procedural challenges in safeguards implementation, specifically – in the processes of developing safeguards approaches and authentication of safeguards equipment. As it turns out, these processes can take decades (even though some are now quicker with access to design information), whereas, for example, first new generation IV reactors can come online by 2030. With the increasing number of reactors and nuclear material under safeguards, growing number of facilities for decommissioning, and development of new technologies come concerns over the sufficiency of the IAEA resources. Certain innovations, like, for example, applying artificial intelligence to video surveillance analysis, could significantly reduce humanhours needed for safeguarding functions. However, how fast can new technologies be authorized for safeguards use by the Agency? The situation highlights the need to seek options to accelerate the processes mentioned. On top of that, enhancing communication among stakeholders involved in these processes, improving the procedures, and increasing their visibility/accessibility could help improve the Agency’s efficiency. This, in turn, would allow for faster reactions to innovations and for employing cutting-edge technologies to deter proliferation.


Safeguards are a set of technical measures established to verify that a State adheres to its international obligations to retain nuclear materials and technology in peaceful uses. There are two technical objectives of IAEA safeguards:

  1. Timely detection of diversion of significant quantities of nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities to the manufacture of nuclear weapons or of other nuclear explosive devices or for purposes unknown, and deterrence of such diversion by the risk of early detection.
  2. Detection of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a State.

In order to meet its safeguards objectives, the IAEA employs safeguards measures — methods available to the IAEA under safeguards agreements and additional protocols. The principal safeguards measures include nuclear materials measurement, sampling, analysis as well as containment and surveillance, which all depend on specific approved
equipment. New types of facilities require new types of safeguards equipment. For one, the inspectors’ access to the material may be very limited (as with some small modular reactor (SMR) designs). Additionally, the use of coolants other than water (e.g. leadbismuth, sodium) impedes traditional optical viewing of the fuel.

However, before raising the question of authenticating new equipment, the IAEA has to identify if there is a need for it. The Agency can outline any additional needs after developing a safeguards approach. Safeguards approach — a set of safeguards measures chosen for the implementation of safeguards in a given situation in order to meet the applicable safeguards objectives (i.e. they serve the technical objectives and are outlined for safeguards implementation in a particular setup). In other words, the Agency chooses a combination of measures that could detect misuse of facilities and diversion of nuclear material for unauthorized, potentially military, purposes. The IAEA does it through first analyzing how a State can acquire, or a facility can divert nuclear material. Thus, there exists a State-level safeguards approach (SLA) and facilityspecific approach to safeguards.

Current Challenges

There are differences in perspectives on various aspects of equipment acquisition and authorization among the IAEA Secretariat, Member States, and other actors involved. We can outline the main sets of challenges.


The IAEA needs to develop or acquire equipment for safeguarding new reactor types (molten-salt, pebble-bed, high-temperature gas cooled, and others). There is a potential need for specialized or different types of safeguards equipment because their fuel and other technical characteristics can impede traditional safeguards implementation. However, more fundamentally, safeguards approaches for those types of reactors have yet to be developed. Historically, the IAEA installed safeguards equipment after plant construction ended. The first safeguards approaches were developed after many facilities had already begun operation. At the same time, it meant retrofitting instrumentation, which sometimes required making changes to the facility itself and significantly increased the costs. In order to reduce safeguards impact on the operational facility to the minimum and to avoid additional financial burden and complications related to redesigning facilities, the Agency has embraced a safeguards by design (SBD) approach. SBD is the process “of including international safeguards considerations throughout all phases of a nuclear facility life cycle; from the initial conceptual design to facility construction and into operations, including modifications and decommissioning.” At the same time, the process of creating such an approach can be very protracted. For example, the IAEA started a forum for discussing safeguards for geological repositories in 1988. The advisory group working on the project included Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Hungary, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S., plus Germany as an observer. An approach based on the specific facility design and the SLA for Finland was developed in detail only in 2002. The provisional application started only in 2017 at a Finnish facility at Olkiluoto.

Even though using SBD approach seems logical, there are complications with applying it. For example, a lot of new reactor technologies come from nuclear weapons countries, like China’s pebble-bed reactor. China does not have an obligation to safeguard it because the State has only a Voluntary Offer Agreement with the Agency, which means that the choice of the facilities offered for the IAEA inspections is left to its sole discretion. However, when PRC started to contemplate exporting such reactors, it realized that the reactors must be safeguardable. It meant that it benefitted China to engage the Agency to look at their facility in Shidaowan, Shandong province, to create a safeguards approach. As the reactor is already constructed, the only way to apply safeguards is retrofitting. This is a complicated situation for the Agency as, for example, the extensive wiring for cameras needs to cut through the walls. Moreover, the IAEA also has to take cyber risks into consideration and ensure the absence of tampering with the information as it goes to the IAEA, which would be easier to do during the construction phase because then the wiring would be hidden inside. Similar challenges can arise, for example, with Russian floating nuclear power plants. Now the idea even expanded to the concept of “transportable” nuclear power plants, not only floating, and Russia contemplates exporting such units.

A challenge is that operators may not always understand the reason for some safeguards measures. Some of the operators see own work as practical and down to earth, whereas they refer to what the Agency does as probabilistic and question the necessity of allocating vast financial resources for such preemptive activities. For example, with the IAEA already working on a safeguards approach for a Chinese pebble-bed reactor, some call such work futile unless there already exists an exact export contract signed. What they mean is that unless the technology for sure will leave the official nuclear weapons state, there is no sense in creating such a safeguards approach: China does not have an obligation to safeguard all of its facilities and can just make voluntary offers. There is no clear understanding of the benefits of SBD or, rather, there is one on paper, but there is no shared view on when it is reasonable to start creating a safeguards approach for new types of facilities. At the same time, the IAEA has limited resources and can only focus on a certain amount of activities at a time. Sometimes, there is a way to overcome such constraints when States themselves offer donations or extrabudgetary funds for developing model approaches and equipment. For example, a lot of unique instrumentation was developed for Rokkasho reprocessing plant by the US and Japan, which required extensive financial input from both. When the Agency works on creating approaches and equipment itself, it has to identify a type of facility closest to deployment in order to avoid criticism (e.g. of being probabilistic as mentioned above). Such identification is often hard to assess due to 1) proprietary information and thus the lack of willingness to share it on the part of a state and 2) the insufficient coordination of departments within IAEA. If there was better communication among the departments, for example, more official information exchange through regular dedicated channels like meetings or newsletters, it could let the Department of Safeguards (SG) be aware of the facilities (new designs) actually being closest to deployment. Without this, the development of appropriate safeguards equipment can be delayed.

There are four ways in which the Agency can acquire instrumentation:

  1. “Off the shelf” – conventional equipment like HM-5 radiation detectors (hardware). Something that everyone around the world knows and uses.
  2. The IAEA can develop or customize instrumentation itself in Austria.
  3. Equipment can also be created in Member States through Member State Support Programmes (MSSP) or national laboratories in cooperation with the IAEA.
  4. Private entities and laboratories can also come up with new or enhanced equipment.

Any state-of-the-art equipment needs to be validated in different environments: e.g. very warm, very humid, very low temperatures. These tests can take up to ten years. For example, one of the latest technologies, authorized in 2017 was Passive Gamma Emission Tomography (PGET). PGET development timeline included design, manufacturing, and testing between 2004-2014 and authorization process between 2015-2017


An additional complication is that if the procedures were written ten years ago, they may not be usable because of obsolescence, thus, it is important to keep them up to date. But first of all, it is crucial to make sure that all the employees are aware of them and can easily identify and access the relevant document – Safeguards Instrument Authorization Process – where the procedures and processes are outlined. In general, the process includes the following phases:

• Assessing user need (who is going to use the equipment);
• User requirements;
• Option analysis (what are other equipment options addressing the same need);
• Addressing user need (preparing a separate document per each user requirement explaining how the instrumentation addresses it);
• Evaluating data security;
• Explaining overall usability (how easy it is to use);
• Field evaluation (testing of the equipment at the IAEA and in the field);
• Consulting with SG operations (to get their opinion on the equipment and how convenient it is for them to use);
• Preparing a development report;
• Undergoing Scientific and Technical Panel (STP) and Technical and Scientific Coordination Sub-Committee (STS) approval.

As can be seen, operations, who actually use the equipment, are formally consulted pretty late in authorization process. Thus, it is left on the discretion of the officer responsible for the process to hold informal consultations in advance. If this is not done properly, then there is a risk of running into a situation where an extensive amount of effort and resources is put into something that is not usable by operations.

The authorization process itself can take not so long, like around two years spent on the next generation of Cerenkov Viewing Device (XCVD). The longest phases of the process are addressing user needs and field testing, which usually happens through MSSP, requires negotiating with the Member State and particular facilities not to interfere with their operation, and thus can be lengthy. On top of that, at this stage, the IAEA has to consider and try to refute potential objections to the equipment’s use within a sate. However, before the authorization process is initiated, the development processes are pretty ad hoc, can be lengthy, and depend on one of the four ways in which the Agency can acquire instrumentation mentioned above. In order to have the greatest efficiency in meeting the new technological challenges, the Agency has to be aware of the most modern of them at all times and seek cooperation with developers even outside traditional MSSPs. One of the already existing ways is holding Emerging Technology Workshops. At the same time, after the workshops are conducted, it is important to keep the focus and have a single place where the most relevant ideas can be collected and further developed. It will help avoid the situation when an event remains “just a talk.” Nowadays, with many new reactor types in various stages of development, safeguards-relevant R&D happening all over the world, and thus the abundance of information flow, one cannot overestimate the importance of highlighting the most relevant instances for the attention of SG. Professionals with deep knowledge
of certain aspects are not only based in SGTS but also different SG and the Department of Nuclear Energy (NE) divisions, and even in other traditional and non-traditional partnering entities. Thus, there should exist a mechanism, sort of a drop box, where professionals could bring most SG-relevant R&D to the Agency’s attention. It could be a good starting point to assess the user need for any equipment and check in with relevant stakeholders (in particular, SG operations) early in the day.

Read the full article below.

Valeriia Hesse (Lozova) is a management consultant at Atomic Reporters. She is also a non-resident fellow at Odesa Center for Nonproliferation (OdCNP) and used to be a consultant at World Institute for Nuclear Security and an intern at the Division of Concepts and Planning at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Department of Safeguards.

This article was published originally by the Institute of Nuclear Material Management here.

Photo credit: © Dean Calma / IAEA

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