The discovery of a hidden weapons program in Iraq in 1991 motivated the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to strengthen its safeguarding of nuclear materials with an Additional Protocol (AP) that gives the Agency far greater investigatory powers than before. While this new, voluntary agreement is often touted as very powerful, a recent example of the weakness of the AP is the case of Myanmar.
The so-called Model Additional Protocol was designed to give the IAEA greater access to information about nuclear activities and materials within a State. One of the most prominent terms of the AP is short notice inspection of declared nuclear materials and activities in a country. There is also a provision for inspections of suspicious activities that IAEA wishes to resolve. The latter are not short notice inspections and require cooperative attempts at resolution in diplomatic channels before a demand for a special inspection can occur.
Myanmar has received great praise for signing an AP, supposedly ending years of speculation and concern about nuclear weapons ambitions. Prior to this, Myanmar (then known as Burma) signed a normal safeguards agreement with the IAEA in April 1995, and also executed an instrument called a Small Quantities Protocol (SQP).
Under an SQP the IAEA does not implement any nuclear safeguards or in-country inspections. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s there were reports of nuclear activities in Myanmar that might have been related to nuclear weapons ambitions. But without irrefutable proof that something was amiss, the IAEA was unable to carry out inspections.
International pressure to sign the AP mounted. In 2013 Myanmar signed an AP at the IAEA General Conference with a press conference and subsequent positive media coverage. Many considered that Myanmar had taken all the required steps to ensure IAEA compliance. There was praise for having taken steps towards demonstrating their non-proliferation commitments. Myanmar, however, has never ratified the AP and it is not in force as a legal instrument. However, it is also important to note that there was a 22-year delay prior to Myanmar ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention in July 2015.
Because Myanmar has not ratified the AP it technically remains under its old agreements and SQP, leaving many questions unanswered about past nuclear weapons activity and future transparency.
The IAEA has never carried out inspections on the ground that Myanmar has declared it has nothing to inspect under the SQP. This essentially will not change under the AP. The government will survey the entire country for evidence of nuclear materials and activities not previously reported to the IAEA. It will provide the IAEA with declarations of what it chooses to report, if anything.
This process can take several additional years and will only be as accurate as the government wants it to be. It is clear that Myanmar is facing enormous social changes and nuclear proliferation is certainly a low priority. There may well also be individuals who will not want past activities to be revealed through declarations.
Similarly, small states Belarus, Benin, Malaysia and Thailand all signed APs in 2005 and have yet to bring them into force. Many small countries are pressured into signing an AP without a clear understanding of the significant obligations associated with a ratified AP. States may also sign the AP to get the political credit that comes with signing while covertly planning to never ratify.
If Myanmar has been honest since it originally executed the SQP back in 1995, then there will still be nothing to report. Myanmar will declare its materials and activities as of the time the AP comes into force. If Myanmar claims nothing to declare, IAEA will still have little or no reason to demand further access.
The case of Myanmar and its progress through signing, ratifying and implementing the Additional Protocol has broader implications. Although Myanmar is slowly working its way through a maze of international agreements, such as banning nuclear testing, chemical weapons and biological weapons, progress is being made in an era of momentous change for a state swinging from military dictatorship to full democracy in a short period.
Signing the AP, and bringing it into force is a slow and painstaking process. In addition, moving from an SQP where no inspections currently take place, to an essentially blank AP declaration is also a hollow victory. Even if ratification does occur, the IAEA has very few tools to actually demand an inspection in a state that wishes to conceal past or present activities hiding behind its own unverifiable declaration that it has nothing to declare.
Myanmar should be congratulated for its efforts to date and hopefully good cooperation in coming years, but over-praising the AP for making the world safer from nuclear nonproliferation needs to be carefully assessed.
Bob Kelley is a licensed professional nuclear engineer in the the US State of California. His career spanned over 35 years in the US nuclear weapons complex in activities ranging from plutonium metallurgy, to isotope separation to intelligence analysis. He was later a Director of the IAEA in Vienna where his main activity was investigations of unusual nuclear activities in countries for example: Iraq, Syria, Egypt, South Africa, and Libya among others. He was one of the first to employ the additional protocol in contentious circumstances.