Interview with Nuclear Nonproliferation Expert, Dr. Fred McGoldrick
Dr. Fred McGoldrick has been involved in the field of nuclear nonproliferation and international nuclear cooperation for over 30 years. He held senior positions in the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of State, where he negotiated U.S. peaceful nuclear cooperation agreements and helped shape U.S. policy to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. He also served in the U.S. Mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. Since his retirement from the State Department in 1998, he has consulted on issues of nonproliferation and nuclear export controls and published numerous articles and monographs on these subjects.
TGCI: Tell us a little bit about your story; how did you get involved in Nuclear Non-Proliferation work?
Fred McGoldrick: I guess you could say that I just wandered into the field. I was in college (Boston College) during the Berlin crisis, the Cuban missile crisis and the beginning of Vietnam and was becoming really interested in foreign policy and national security. I decided to study international affairs in graduate school (masters from Columbia) then took the management intern exam and joined the Federal Government. I also obtained a PhD from the American University. I was offered a job in the Office of International Security Affairs in the old Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC eventually was reorganized into the Department of Energy. Then I went to the State Department where I worked on nuclear nonproliferation issues for more than 30 years.
TGCI: For our members who may not know much about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), can you describe what the treaty seeks to do and how it came about?
Fred McGoldrick: The NPT was first proposed by the Irish around 1960 and was negotiated in the mid-sixties at the initiative of the U.S. and the USSR. It entered into force in 1970. The NPT is an unequal treaty. It recognizes 5 countries as nuclear weapon states (NWS) – those who detonated a nuclear weapon before January 1970. The other 185 parties are non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS).
The NPT obliges the NWS to refrain from assisting in any way NNWS in manufacturing or acquiring nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices and to negotiate on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.
The Treaty obliges the NNWS to refrain from manufacturing or acquiring nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices and to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards (inspections) on all their peaceful nuclear activities. It also obliges members to require IAEA safeguards on their nuclear exports to NNWS.
Its principal purpose is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. However, the NNWS regard the Treaty’s provisions recognizing of their right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the obligation of the NNWS to negotiate in good faith on nuclear disarmament, i.e., to eliminate their nuclear weapons, as equally important. Thus the NPT often is described in terms of three pillars or functions that the agency carries out – nonproliferation, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and disarmament.
TGCI: How many countries to date have signed and ratified the treaty?
Fred McGoldrick: 190 states are parties to NPT, of which 5 are nuclear weapon states—the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China. There also are five holdout states; countries that have nuclear weapons but have not signed NPT.
TGCI: Can you describe the system that has been set up to monitor NPT? How does it work? What is the process involved? Who does the monitoring?
Fred McGoldrick: The NPT itself does not have a formal monitoring system associated with it. The monitoring of NPT is linked to the mission and work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Set up in 1957 as the world’s center for cooperation in the nuclear field, the IAEA works with its 164 Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies.
NNWS member states of the IAEA agree to participate in the agency’s safeguards system by signing a Safeguard Agreement. Once signed the Agreement gives the IAEA the ability to conduct inspections at all the peaceful nuclear activities in a NNWS to insure that it is using its nuclear material and facilities for peaceful means. The objective of IAEA safeguards is to deter the spread of nuclear weapons by early detection of the misuse of nuclear material or technology, providing credible assurances that States are honoring their legal obligations.
Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty assigns the IAEA the responsibility of applying its safeguards system to all the peaceful nuclear activities in NNWS. Each NNWS must conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA covering all their peaceful nuclear activities. The IAEA employs material accountancy and control measures supplemented by containment and surveillance methods to verify that a country’s nuclear activities remain in peaceful use.
TGCI: Is it difficult to convert nuclear materials into weapons-grade materials if you are a non-nuclear weapons state?
Fred McGoldrick: It’s not that difficult but it does take time, requires having adequate technical and financial resources, and access to the right materials and equipment.
TGCI: Can you explain further?
Fred McGoldrick: Yes. You need to do two things. You need to acquire or manufacture weapons-grade fissile nuclear materials, which can either be plutonium or highly enriched uranium. If you wish to use highly enriched uranium, you need to have a plant that can enrich natural uranium from a level of 0.7% uranium 235 to about 90 % U-235 If you choose plutonium, (which doesn’t exist in nature) you need to have a reactor –usually a heavy water reactor– that can irradiate the uranium fuel and thereby produce plutonium. You also need a reprocessing plant that can separate the highly radioactive waste from the plutonium.
TGCI: Is it difficult to acquire the plant and the materials?
Fred McGoldrick: Uranium – the basis for plutonium and weapons-grade uranium – is mined in several places around the world and is not that difficult to acquire. Acquiring enrichment plants are more difficult. There are a limited number of suppliers that face export restrictions. Reprocessing plants are not difficult to build provided you have the necessary technical expertise.
TGCI: How long does the whole process take?
Fred McGoldrick: Anywhere from several months to a year. It depends on the efficiency of the plant.
TGCI: Are nuclear weapon states also obliged to participate in the IAEA’s safeguards system?
Fred McGoldrick: No they’re not, but some do so on a voluntary basis. For example, the United States has a safeguard agreement with the IAEA, though it only covers its civil nuclear facilities.
TGCI: What happens if the IAEA finds a country to be in violation of its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, i.e. that it is using nuclear material intended for peaceful use for military means?
Fred McGoldrick: It refers the matter to the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council for appropriate action.
TGCI: What steps can the Security Council take to address NPT violations?
Fred McGoldrick: The vast majority of countries have complied. Romania, North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Syria are the only states that have been found by the IAEA Board of Governors in serious noncompliance with their IAEA safeguards agreements. The IAEA Board of Governors must submit its finding of noncompliance to the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. What happens then depends on the severity of the noncompliance. Minor violations often are ignored, but more serious breeches get addressed. For example, the Security Council has adopted resolutions sanctioning Iran and North Korea and mandating their cooperation with the IAEA.
TGCI: Have any changes been made in the IAEA’s safeguard system since its inception?
Fred McGoldrick: The safeguards system has undergone significant changes over the years. The IAEA’s experience with Iraq and the North Korea in the early 1990s demonstrated that, although IAEA safeguards had worked well with regard to verification activities on declared nuclear material and facilities, the IAEA was not well equipped to detect undeclared nuclear material and activities. This set the stage and provided the catalyst for far-reaching efforts to strengthen the safeguards system.
In 1993 the IAEA board of governors mandated that the secretariat propose legal, technical, and financial means of strengthening safeguards. The recommendations resulted in a two-part program. One comprised measures the agency concluded it already had the legal authority to undertake and that could begin immediately. These included requests for additional information from states on their former and future nuclear facilities; increased use of unattended monitoring devices transmitting data direct to IAEA headquarters in Vienna; expanded use of short-notice and unannounced inspections at declared facilities; and the introduction of environmental sampling. In addition, the Agency revolutionized its use of open-source information, including satellite imagery, which is increasingly cheaply available commercially, as well as accepting intelligence information from member states.
Part two involved states providing the Agency with the legal authority for further measures by individually concluding a supplement to their comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreements. In May 1997, the board agreed on a Model Additional Protocol, which expanded the verification responsibilities of the agency and each state-party. It increased transparency by extending states’ declaration, reporting, and site access obligations to encompass the range of nuclear fuel cycle activities from mining to the storage of nuclear waste. The protocol also requires states to report on nuclear equipment production, imports and exports, fuel cycle research and development, and future plans for facilities. Parties are required to provide an expanded declaration of their nuclear activities within 180 days of entry into force of their additional protocol.
The IAEA now takes a holistic, as opposed to a materials- and facilities-based, view of states’ nuclear activities. It seeks “credible assurance not only about declared nuclear material in a state but also about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities.” Complementary access could be sought by inspectors to resolve ambiguities discerned at declared and undeclared sites.
TGCI: In your judgment how effective has NPT been in reducing the spread of nuclear weapons? In reducing the stockpiles of countries with nuclear weapons?
Fred McGoldrick: 146 states have signed the Additional Protocol and it is in effect for 126. In 2014, safeguards were applied for 180 States with safeguards agreements in force with the Agency. Of the 118 States that had both a comprehensive safeguards agreement and an Additional Protocol in force, the Agency concluded that all nuclear material remained in peaceful activities in 65 States; for 53 States, as the necessary evaluation regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities remained ongoing, the Agency was unable to draw the same conclusion.
TGCI: How about NPT’s effectiveness in helping to reduce existing nuclear stockpiles?
Fred McGoldrick: There has been a great deal of effort put into reducing the weapons stockpiles of nuclear weapons nations. The United States and Russia hold over 90% of these weapons. Through a now expired bi-lateral treaty, US and Russia have reduced their stockpiles from 60,000 at the time of the Cold War to 1,550 each. However, as a result of recent world events, efforts to pursue a new US-Russia nuclear weapons treaty have stalled. Russia now includes nuclear weapons as part of its military doctrine because of the decline in its conventional forces. Also Russia is upset with US-led efforts to setup a missile defense system in Eastern Europe (supposedly to defend the region against threats from Iran).
TGCI: I understand that the Non Nuclear Weapon States are dissatisfied with the level of progress being made by the Nuclear Weapon States to reduce their stockpiles.
Fred McGoldrick: Every 5 years, NPT parties hold a Review Conference, and the NNWS loudly complain about the failure of the NWS to live up to their disbarment obligations. At this year’s Review Conference a coalition of 107 countries led by Austria supported a “humanitarian pledge” to “fill the legal gap” in the treaty by pursuing a prohibition of the possession and use of nuclear weapons. Such a ban would make these weapons illegal and will stigmatize any state that continues to have these weapons as being outside of international law. The Austria-led effort failed and most of the NNWS expressed disappointment over the failure to extract from the five nuclear weapons states a clear commitment to an effective, legally binding process toward nuclear disarmament in a sure, predictable, and time-bound manner.
TCGI: There are other important international agreements and treaties that support nuclear non-proliferation. Can you describe there?
Fred McGoldrick: While NPT is the foundation of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, there are other important international agreements, conventions, and treaties that need to be considered as part of these efforts. One such agreement is the Nuclear Supplier Guidelines. This is a non-binding set of guidelines developed by the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG)-a group of countries with companies that produce nuclear materials and equipment. To date 48 countries belong to the NSG. Member countries agree to use the Guidelines to frame their licensing policies for use by their companies that export nuclear materials and facilities. Each participating government implements the Guidelines in accordance with its national laws and practices.
Other international, legally binding instruments in the field of nuclear non-proliferation include the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America (Treaty of Tlatelolco), the South Pacific Nuclear-Free-Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga), the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba), the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (Treaty of Bangkok), and the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Semipalatinsk).
The international nonproliferation regime also consists of various conventions, guidelines and initiatives to prevent the theft or sabotage of nuclear materials and facilities. These include the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, and the IAEA Guidelines on Physical Protection.
TGCI: Do you have any recommendations for strengthening the work of the IAEA?
Fred McGoldrick: The existing system remains as underfinanced and under-resourced. The IAEA inspects about 1,250 nuclear facilities, and there are a lot more expected to come on line. The safeguards budget is about 132 million Euros – with about an additional 116 million USD in the regular budget. The IAEA gets about 32 million Euros in extra-budgetary contributions – about 28 million USD.
Also, I hope that more states will sign the Additional Protocol and NPT members should recognize it as the international norm for IAEA safeguards. Nuclear suppliers should require it as a condition of their nuclear exports.
TGCI: What is your perspective on the current effort to get Iran to become a signature to NPT?
Fred McGoldrick: Iran is already a party to the NPT. The challenge is to ensure that the Iranians abide by their NPT obligations and the commitments they have recently made in their agreement with the P-5+1.
TGCI: Do you think it’s fair that NPT member countries get to keep their nuclear weapons while at the same time asking other countries to forego building such weapons?
Fred McGoldrick: You mean nuclear weapon states, not NPT parties. No, it is not fair. But as JFK said, “Life is unfair.” I am not optimistic about nuclear disarmament, barring a catastrophic nuclear war. However, the NWS should be pressed to make further reductions in their nuclear arsenals.
TGCI: Thank you.