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New Verification Challenges

  • AUTHORJohn Carlson, International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament
  • Jun 4, 2009


The maxim ‘trust but verify’ is of fundamental importance to nuclear arms control – to efforts to counter the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately to eliminate them. Non-proliferation – the commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons, and disarmament – the commitment to phase out and eliminate nuclear weapons – both depend on the highest levels of confidence and trust amongst states. Confidence and trust are underpinned by verification – effective verification is essential to achieving a denuclearized world.

As recognized by the NPT, non-proliferation is inextricably linked with nuclear disarmament. An effective non-proliferation regime is a necessary condition to achieving nuclear disarmament – disarmament will not proceed without confidence that new nuclear threats will not emerge. And non-proliferation will remain essential in the post-disarmament world, to counter new nuclear weapons programs and the reconstitution of former programs.

For non-proliferation, the world has almost four decades experience with a comprehensive multilateral verification system, the IAEA safeguards system. IAEA safeguards have developed over some five decades into a system of considerable complexity and capability. Major elements include: inspection, sampling, analysis and monitoring methods; standards; equipment; and performance evaluation. By and large the IAEA safeguards system has proven successful, but it faces a number of challenges, especially detection of undeclared nuclear activities. This will also be a major challenge for new verification missions, such as fissile material cut-off.

In contrast to verification of non-proliferation, verification of nuclear disarmament is largely a new field. The area of greatest experience is with arms control agreements between the US and Russia, but these agreements have dealt with delivery systems rather than weapons as such. Also important is the monitoring system under the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), in provisional operation in anticipation of the CTBT’s entry-into-force.

In considering the new verification challenges involved with disarmament, and how these might be addressed, it is necessary to define the new verification missions likely to be required. There will not be a single disarmament treaty, but several steps: nuclear test ban; fissile material cut-off; reduction of deployed nuclear weapons; nuclear weapons dismantlement; stockpile stewardship activities; dealing with fissile material stocks. Each of these will involve particular verification challenges.

A number of the prospective new verification missions are analogous, technically, to IAEA safeguards – although the sensitivity of some of the materials and facilities will require innovative approaches. It will be important to draw on IAEA experience to the extent appropriate. As new kinds of agreements are negotiated, the parties will need to address not just technical aspects but

also institutional arrangements. Issues to be considered include: inspection arrangements; decision-making processes; availability of verification information; the kind of information that can trigger inspections; and how inspections would be initiated.  transparency and confidence building mechanisms are expected to have an essential role in complementing formal verification


This paper was originally published in the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. To read the full article, please download the file on the left.