Can civil society help to verify nuclear disarmament?

Transparency and verification are central to sustainable nuclear disarmament and a compelling new report on nuclear weapons materials includes a look at ways in which “societal verification” can contribute to a more effective nonproliferation regime.

The just released 2009 report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials[i] (IPFM) examines, in addition to its main focus on global stocks of nuclear weapon materials, the verification challenges for nuclear disarmament pursued in a world where nuclear materials and knowledge are widely disseminated through civilian nuclear power programs. The report confirms the basic conclusion of the recent CIGI study,[ii] From Nuclear Energy to the Bomb – namely, that scientific knowledge acquired through a nuclear energy program provides the basic foundation of expertise and, especially, the core personnel and infrastructure on which a nuclear weapons program can be built. Justin Alger points out in his CIGI paper that “a state’s capacity to make the leap from power production to assembling a nuclear device is typically considered a matter of time rather than ability.”[iii]

The Global Fissile Material Report 2009 from the IPFM sets out the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons rather starkly in the opening paragraph of Chapter 8:  “A civilian nuclear power program provides a state a foundation to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons. It allows a country to train scientists and engineers, to build research facilities, to construct and operate nuclear reactors, and possibly also to learn techniques of reprocessing and enrichment that could later be turned to producing weapons materials. Even small civilian nuclear energy programs can involve large stocks and flows of nuclear-weapon-usable materials.”

Nuclear power has serious proliferation risks, but regardless of those risks, and whatever its economic and environmental merits, existing and already planned nuclear power operations mean it will remain a prominent feature of the global energy and, by default, security landscape for a long time to come. That in turn obviously means that transparency and verification are of over-riding importance. The transparency objective, as the IPFM puts it, is to lengthen the time between a country’s decision to pursue a nuclear weapon and the achievement of the same. Legally mandated inspections are designed to detect a weapons program early on so as to give the international community maximum time to mount an effective preventive response. But the presence of a civilian nuclear program reduces that time – because it develops expertise and makes it easier to disguise a weapons program behind ostensibly legitimate civilian research and development.

The ninth chapter of the IPFM report then considers whether the inspections regime, and the time-lag between decision and fruition in a weapons program, can be enhanced and extended through societal verification. Can “non-governmental organizations and individual scientists and technologists” be encouraged and offered mechanisms through which to provide information related to national violations of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard commitments? The IAEA is the agency mandated to inspect civilian nuclear energy programs and verify that no nuclear materials or technology are being diverted to weapons programs.

The IPFM report documents Joseph Rotblat’s promotion of this idea. Rotblat, the Nobel Laureate who resigned in protest from the Manhattan Project and was instrumental in starting the international Pugwash movement,[iv] argued that societal verification is needed to complement formal detection measures. Such reporting, or whistle blowing, he said, should be recognized as the right and duty of all citizens, and that scientists in particular should be, and generally are, committed to methods and ethics that transcend national loyalties and recognize a loyalty to all humanity. Indeed, he even argued that any global treaty or nuclear weapons convention[v] should include a clause mandating states to enact laws guaranteeing the individual’s the right and duty to report violations of safeguards to the IAEA.

As to NGO reporting, the IPFM acknowledges that many don’t have the technical capacity for such informal monitoring, but they do nevertheless frequently have relevant information. Over time, community based groups linked to particular nuclear sites, for example, “become very expert in understanding activities at the site they contest.” Other groups and institutes do develop technical capacities, for example, to measure radiation levels, and, “moreover, technological developments may significantly increase those capabilities. The cost of satellite imagery, for example, has declined considerably in recent years while its spatial resolution has increased” (p. 121).

Societal verification is certainly not new or unprecedented. The Landmines Treaty[vi] includes references to the implementation responsibilities of non-governmental organizations, and the Landmine Monitor[vii] is published annually through the non-governmental International Campaign to Ban Landmines and monitors a broad range of details related to implementation of the Treaty.

Of course, societal verification and links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons are but one small part of the Global Fissile Material Report 2009. The bulk of this year’s report focuses on documenting current stocks of fissile material, that is, weapons usable highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and their control and management in support of nuclear disarmament. Chapter headings, beyond the two discussed here, are: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stocks and Production, Fissile Materials and Nuclear Disarmament, Declarations of Fissile Material Stocks and Production, Nuclear Archaeology, Verified Warhead Dismantlement, Disposition of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, Verified Cutoff of Fissile Material Production for Weapons.


[i] Global Fissile Material Report 2009, the fourth annual report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), experts from seventeen nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states, was founded in January 2006. The Panel examines and proposes technical requirements for securing, consolidating, and reducing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium – these being the key ingredients in nuclear weapons. Control of these materials, says the Panel, “is critical to nuclear disarmament, halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and ensuring that terrorists do not acquire nuclear weapons.” It is housed at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.

[ii] Justin Alger, From Nuclear Energy to the Bomb: The Proliferation Potential of New Nuclear Energy Programs, Nuclear Energy Futures Paper No. 6, September 2009, Centre for International Governance Innovation. Available at:

[iii] See the recent posting here, “Does nuclear energy lead to the bomb?”

[iv] Both Rotblat and Pugwash are celebrated in the current National Film Board film, “The Strangest Dream.”

[v] See the recent posting here, “Canada and a nuclear weapons convention,” 5 September 2009.

[vi] Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction.


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