Report Faults IAEA Safeguards for Not Tracking Smaller Amounts of Material

Media report makes report on general safeguards about Iran

A new, US State Department-funded report from the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) analyzed how the current IAEA safeguard agreements operate on the small end of nuclear material, and tries to reconcile that with hypothetical needs for low-yield nuclear weapons.

The point of the report is to take a IAEA definition of “significant” fissile material, and show that low-yield weapons are achievable with less than that. It also deals with research on the casualties that could be produced in the Middle East or elsewhere by such low-yield nuclear weapons.

What we’re meant to take from the report is that the IAEA isn’t looking at smaller amounts of material, and needs to revise its safeguards to keep up with the technology of low-yield arms. It does not go into the practical question of whether the IAEA inspectors are capable of trying to detect much smaller amounts of fissile material, or indeed if the IAEA may already be trying to detect amounts that they themselves wouldn’t consider “significant” in the case of reporting.

Media coverage has been sparse, but lead with Iran themes, as with “Iran nuclear deal: Are IAEA safeguards ‘dangerous obsolete?’” This reflects anyone hearing IAEA and nuclear detection automatically thinking about Iran, even though Iran is no more than superficially mentioned in the report, and the Iranian program is in no way particularly relevant to the concern.

After all, whether a uranium-based weapon is made of 25 kg or only 6 kg, it still requires weapons-grade uranium, and Iran has made no effort to enrich its uranium above 90%. Iran has similarly not proven its ability to make functional arms at normal sizes, let alone hypothetical much smaller ones that would get away with less of the uranium they don’t even have.

While the report didn’t go deep into this either, it should be noted that the one nation that has been talking up low-yield weapons in their arsenal is the United States, which has envisioned lower yield as meaning “more usable” arms that they can wield against non-nuclear states with comparative impunity. If anything, this would make the report’s estimates of damage from 1 kt nukes far more alarming, as the US is the nation that’s openly considering heading down this road.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.