The Year in Review
Dr Robert Floyd
Australian Safeguards and
The International Non-Proliferation Environment
The 2019–20 reporting period was characterised by an increasingly challenging international security environment and accompanying strain on established arms control arrangements. Key developments in the non-proliferation sphere included the attribution of chemical weapons use in Syria by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and concerns regarding Iran's compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and its international safeguards obligations. While the COVID–19 pandemic of 2020 has fundamentally changed the way we live and work, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has continued to conduct nuclear safeguards inspections worldwide, including in Australia, despite experiencing some disruption due to travel restrictions.1
The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt in communities, industries and professional networks across the world. In the nuclear non-proliferation community, the pandemic has impacted on various international meetings and forums, including Australia's Presidency of the Conference on Disarmament and chairing of the UN Disarmament Commission. The 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT RevCon) was planned to convene in April 2020, but has been postponed to a date in 2021. Many forums have adjusted and the non-proliferation community is finding new ways to work, cooperate and engage in these challenging times.
Australia has advocated at a high political level since the 1980s for a ban on nuclear weapons testing and has continued to support the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission. During the 2019–20 period, the CTBTO began discussions on an election process to decide on who will lead that body when the current term of Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo ends in 2021. I am honoured to report the Government has decided that when nominations open in early 2020–21, I will be nominated for the role.
The OPCW concluded in April 2020 that there are reasonable grounds to believe the Syrian Arab Air Force used sarin in southern Ltamenah, Syria on 24 and 30 March 2017, and that the Syrian Arab Air Force used chlorine as a chemical weapon against the Ltamenah hospital on 25 March 2017.2 Syria is a State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and it is imperative that Syria uphold its obligations under the Convention. Additionally, in May 2020 Australia commenced a two-year term in the OPCW Executive Council.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has continued to reduce gradually its commitments under the JCPOA, and in January 2020 announced it would no longer be subject to any restrictions in the operational sphere. The IAEA has continued to implement the verification and monitoring provisions under the JCPOA and has reported where Iran exceeded the operational limitations in the JCPOA.3 Australia urges Iran to return to compliance with the JCPOA and fully cooperate with the IAEA.
In December 2019, Amanda Gorely was appointed Australia's inaugural Ambassador for Arms Control and Counter-Proliferation.4 This demonstrates Australia's intention to remain a leader and strong advocate for global arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament.
Despite ongoing challenges in the non-proliferation and disarmament environment, the overwhelming majority of States are compliant with their Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and CWC obligations, and the critically important roles of the IAEA and the OPCW continue to be demonstrated.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Safeguards Developments
International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards
ASNO assesses that the IAEA continues to effectively fulfil its objective of verifying that states uphold their respective nuclear non-proliferation commitments, using the tools available under safeguards agreements and under the Additional Protocol (where in place). The IAEA uses a combination of in-field inspections of nuclear material, facilities, and related activities, as well as its analysis of information at its headquarters in Vienna.
The IAEA has continued to draw soundly based safeguards conclusions for states with safeguards agreements. In 2019, the IAEA was unable to draw the conclusion (referred to as the ‘broader conclusion') that all nuclear material remained in peaceful use activities for one state that had previously received that conclusion. This is an important reminder that the IAEA's conclusions are not automatic or permanent. They are based on a rigorous evaluation of all safeguards-relevant information available.
In March 2020, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi vowed that safeguarding nuclear material ‘will not stop for a single minute' during the COVID–19 pandemic. The IAEA has overcome travel disruptions to continue conducting safeguards inspections worldwide, including at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). Australia strongly supports the continued application of safeguards, as a cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, while fulfilling local health recommendations for the prevention of the spread of COVID–19.
The IAEA continues to devote considerable effort to implementing Iran's safeguards agreement and its Additional Protocol, in addition to the monitoring and verification under the JCPOA. The IAEA reported in March and June 2020 that Iran denied access to two locations specified by the IAEA under the Additional Protocol and failed to engage in substantive discussions to clarify IAEA questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.5 In June, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution calling on Iran to fully cooperate and to provide prompt access to the locations.6
The environment the IAEA operates in is one of steadily increasing quantities of nuclear material and facilities under safeguards, as well as an evolving risk profile for the international nuclear fuel cycle. The IAEA works with Member States to be adaptive and innovative with technology and analytical tools to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of safeguards implementation.
Australia uses its expertise and resources to make tangible contributions to developing safeguards technology and approaches, delivering safeguards training, and providing technical services. In 2020, the Australian Safeguards Support Program (ASSP) to the IAEA celebrated its 40th anniversary. ASNO coordinates the ASSP, which comprises long-standing partnerships between the IAEA and Australian government agencies, ANSTO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australian universities and private companies. These partnerships have helped keep the IAEA's safeguards approaches up to date with the latest developments in nuclear technology from the Hexapartite Safeguards Project of the 1980s for gas centrifuge enrichment, to the ongoing reviews of the IAEA's Physical Model of nuclear fuel cycle technologies. The ASSP has also helped the IAEA with training safeguards experts and analysing samples taken during IAEA inspections. Increasingly, the ASSP is also helping IAEA safeguards use work from technical fields that evolved for applications quite unrelated to safeguards, such as data analytics and robotics.
IAEA safeguards are fundamentally about maintaining international confidence of the compliance of States with non-proliferation commitments, so there is an important role for States to assist each other in maintaining effective domestic systems and promoting good practice. The IAEA continues to work with States to address specific issues and conduct outreach and awareness-raising activities through workshops and meetings. Australia plays a role in regional capacity building and experience sharing through the Asia-Pacific Safeguards Network (APSN), which celebrated its 10th anniversary in Bali in August 2019. As Director General of ASNO, I also contribute to reviews of approaches to safeguards implementation through my role as chair of the Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation (SAGSI). More details on ASNO's work in these areas are in Output 1.4.
In 2020, the IAEA continued to report that it found no indication of the diversion of declared nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities and no indication of undeclared nuclear material or activities in Australia. The IAEA has drawn this ‘broader conclusion' that all nuclear material remained in peaceful activities for Australia every year since 2000.
During the reporting period, the IAEA conducted various verification activities (i.e. inspections) in Australia under the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and the Additional Protocol.
In total, eleven separate IAEA inspections plus two technical visits were carried out at ANSTO. The IAEA generally combines several inspections together, so these eleven inspections were all conducted over three separate visits and the IAEA's findings (where available at the time of publication of this Annual Report) are in Output 1.1 and Appendix B.
ASNO worked with the IAEA and Commonwealth and NSW agencies to overcome challenges posed by COVID–19 restrictions to hold annual physical inventory verification (PIV) inspections at ANSTO in June 2020. The IAEA inspectors spent two weeks in quarantine in Sydney before carrying out the inspections. Additional health and safety measures were applied during the inspections. The inspectors were able to meet their inspection goals while fulfilling national and state health requirements for the prevention of the spread of COVID–19.
Another focus of ASNO's work was contributing to the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources' (DISER) National Radioactive Waste Management Facility project. ASNO worked with ANSTO and DISER to ensure that the engineering designs of the facility can meet requirements to facilitate IAEA verification of any nuclear material held, while seeking to minimise costs associated with verification and facility design.
Nuclear Security Developments
As part of its regular inspection program, ASNO conducted five security inspections and visits including at ANSTO, CSIRO, the Ranger uranium mine and uranium ore concentrate (UOC) transporters. These are described in detail in Section 4 – Output 1.2.
The preparatory process for the Article 16 Conference of States Parties for the Amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material continued with myself (as DG ASNO) co-chairing with Argentina two meetings of legal and technical experts. A detailed account of the process can be found under Current Topics.
A summary of other international nuclear security developments can be found in the IAEA's 2020 nuclear security report.
Bilateral Safeguards Developments
During 2019–20, all Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (AONM) was accounted for in accordance with the procedures and standards prescribed in Australia's network of 25 Nuclear Cooperation Agreements (NCAs) covering 43 countries, plus Taiwan.
All NCAs contain treaty level assurances that AONM will be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and be covered by IAEA safeguards. They also require that appropriate nuclear security measures are applied to AONM exported overseas, as well as a number of supplementary conditions.
The United Kingdom has formally left the European Union and entered into a transition period until 31 December 2020. A new Australia-United Kingdom NCA was signed in August 2018, which is ready to enter into force at the end of this transition period. Until then, nuclear cooperation between Australia and the United Kingdom will continue under the Australia-Euratom NCA, ensuring there will be no legal gaps in coverage of Australian nuclear material.
Chemical Weapons Convention Developments
During the reporting year, ASNO submitted comprehensive and timely annual declarations in accordance with the requirements of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). These declarations included reports of Australia's CWC-related chemical trade and other relevant chemical activities within industry and Defence laboratories, as well as Australia's national programs for assistance and protection against chemical weapons.
ASNO facilitated routine OPCW inspections at three chemical facilities in Victoria. These inspections bring the total number of inspections in Australia to 60 since entry-into-force of the CWC in 1997. The OPCW inspection reports confirmed the veracity of Australia's declared information, including the absence of any undeclared CWC-Schedule 1 chemicals and/or their production.
ASNO has commenced its software development project to create a new database and industry portal to replace those currently in use. To this end, ASNO reached out to our industry stakeholders through a survey to determine what features they would like in the new system. We have incorporated their feedback into the design process with the aim to create a database that is intuitive, robust and simple to use. The new database will provide easy access to information for our stakeholders and allow ASNO staff greater capability in meeting our legislative and treaty obligations.
In November 2019, the Conference of the States Parties to the CWC took a decision to add four new classes of chemicals to Schedule 1 of the Annex of Chemicals of the CWC. This decision was taken in response to the use of Novichok chemical nerve agents in the United Kingdom in 2018. The chemical families being added to Schedule 1 represent the series of Novichok agents, and means such agents will be subject to formal OPCW declaration and verification processes.
ASNO coordinated the required amendment to Australia's Chemical Weapons (Prohibition) Regulations 1997. In preparation for the change to the Regulations, ASNO engaged with approximately 200 industry and government stakeholders to determine the impact of including these chemicals in the Australian regulations and determined that there was no current, or past, interest in the use of these chemicals in Australia, nor did any stakeholders object to their inclusion in Australian legislation. The amended regulations entered into force on 7 June 2020.
ASNO engaged with partner agencies to ensure that the additional chemical families were regulated by Australia's import and export control framework. As a result, the Australian Border Force amended the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulation 1956 to include the additional families of chemicals with entry into force on the 7 June 2020. The Department of Defence verified that the ‘Defence Strategic Goods List (DSGL)' already covered the exportation of these chemical families.
ASNO continued to help inform Australia's policy positions through the provision of technical advice on CWC and verification-related issues. Efforts to rid the world of chemical weapons, and to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction more broadly, involve many domestic and international stakeholders. To this end, ASNO continues to work closely with key stakeholders in the fields of non-proliferation and counter-proliferation. ASNO has a close working relationship with the International Security Division of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as well as the Australian Embassy in The Hague, where the OPCW is based.
ASNO, as Australia's National Authority for the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, also works closely with the OPCW. As the OPCW continues the core work of overseeing the implementation of the CWC worldwide, it has also been challenged by the use of chemical weapons; the use of VX in Malaysia in 2017, the use of Novichok nerve agents in the United Kingdom in 2018, and attributed and alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. Throughout the 2019–20 year, the OPCW has worked to address these issues whilst continuing to support States Parties through essential training and capacity building.
As of May 2020, the CWC boasts membership of 193 States Parties, leaving only four countries yet to join; Israel (signed but not ratified), Egypt, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and South Sudan. Of the member States Parties, 123 (including Australia) have enacted comprehensive implementing legislation required to reduce the threat of the use of chemical weapons including by non-State actors.
The OPCW strives to ensure the elimination of chemical weapons whilst encouraging the use of chemicals for peaceful purposes. To achieve these goals, the OPCW conducts a number of activities.
The OPCW oversees the destruction of chemical weapons and related sites. The OPCW Inspectorate has conducted 3,256 inspections at chemical weapon related sites including of chemical stockpiles, old chemical weapons, manufacturing facilities and destruction facilities. Since the CWC entered into force in 1997, the OPCW has overseen the destruction of 97.51 per cent of the worlds' declared chemical weapons stockpiles and ensured that all 97 declared chemical weapons manufacturing facilities have either been destroyed or converted for peaceful purposes.
To facilitate the use of chemicals for peaceful purposes, the OPCW conducts regular inspections of industrial chemical facilities, ensuring that chemicals have not been diverted into the manufacture of chemical weapons. The OPCW inspectorate has conducted 4,046 inspections of industrial chemical facilities in 80 States Parties. These routine inspections ensure that the worlds' chemical industry operates within parameters agreed to by the CWC States Parties. In addition to the routine inspections, the OPCW has extended its resources by conducting investigations into allegations of chemical weapons use.
During 2019 and 2020, the OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) continued its investigations into allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria. The FFM's final report on the alleged use of toxic chemicals as a weapon in Douma, Syria on 7 April 2018, released on 1 March 2019, assessed there were reasonable grounds to support that allegation, and that the toxic chemical was likely chlorine.
During the reporting period, the OPCW continued to operationalise the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which has the mandate to determine responsibility for chemical weapons attacks. The IIT released its first report on 8 April 2020 on three incidents of chemical weapons use in Ltamenah, Syria, on 24, 25 and 30 March 2017. The IIT based its assessment on interviews with witnesses, review of medical reports, analysis of samples collected from the sites of the incidents, examination of imagery including satellite imagery, and consultation with experts. The IIT concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Arab Air Force were responsible for these three chemical weapons attacks. In response to the release of the IIT report, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Marise Payne called on all CWC States Parties to take appropriate action and to ensure all users of chemical weapons, or those who command, enable or shield those who use chemical weapons, are held responsible.
At the November 2019 Conference of the States Parties to the CWC, decisions were made to support the amendment of the Annex on Chemicals of the CWC; this represents the first time that the Schedules have been amended since the CWC came into force in 1997. The decisions were based on two proposals to include the Novichok family of nerve agents in the Schedule 1 chemical list. A Novichok nerve agent was used in an attempted assassination in the United Kingdom in 2018. At the time of the attack, Novichok agents were not specifically listed in the CWC Annex of Scheduled Chemicals, although the CWC prohibits the use of any chemical as a weapon and therefore indirectly captured these chemicals. The first decision undertaken by the Conference was in response to a proposal put forward jointly by Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States of America; the second proposal was submitted by the Russian Federation. With both proposals accepted, four additional families of chemicals have been added to Schedule 1 of the Annex on Chemicals of the CWC, with the amendment entering into force on 7 June 2020.
In 2017, it was recognised that the OPCW Laboratory and Equipment Store, built in 1966, required replacement if it is to continue to support OPCW core capabilities in the evolving chemical weapons threat environment. The OPCW Laboratory and Equipment Store was designed to support OPCW missions and verification activities, and to support international cooperation and assistance activities. More recently, there has been an increased demand to respond to the emergence of new chemical threats, which requires the development of new and improved verification tools and expanded capabilities to conduct non-routine missions. A plan to replace the current facility with a purpose built facility was announced in 2017. The new facility, to be known as the ChemTech Centre, has an estimated cost of AUD55 million to be met by donations from States Parties by July 2020, with Australia contributing AUD200,000 to the project in 2020. The new ChemTech Centre is due to become operational at the end of 2022.
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)
Although the CTBT is not yet in force, it is a uniquely valuable element of the international non-proliferation and disarmament architecture and has strong support in the great majority of countries. More than 90 per cent of International Monitoring System (IMS) facilities are operating, including all those that Australia has committed to host. The IMS and the International Data Centre, which provides IMS data and products to member states, have continued to function well in the face of disruptions caused by COVID–19. However, meetings of member states have been affected, as have various technical workshops. Planned on-site inspection field exercises have been delayed to 2021. Australian experts have continued to engage with the CTBTO using online tools.
Other Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Activities
International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV)
The International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV) was formed in 2015 to bring together both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states under a cooperative framework to further understand and find solutions to the complex challenges involved in the verification of future nuclear disarmament. During the year, IPNDV concluded a second two-year work phase. In early 2020, IPNDV published on its website findings agreed by the Partnership on how an independent international entity could check nuclear weapon inventories declared by a state, and verify that some or all of these are dismantled. As DG ASNO, I have co-chaired one of IPNDV's three working groups in each work phase.
A highlight of IPNDV's work in 2019 was the conduct by Germany and France of an on-site exercise testing inspection procedures for confirming that there is no diversion of fissile material. ASNO's Malcolm Coxhead led a team evaluating the exercise which has recommended lessons that IPNDV can consider in its third work-phase.
Meetings of IPNDV partners planned for 2020 have been disrupted due to COVID–19 impacts. The third work phase is now underway using online tools. A key aim in the new phase will be to develop verification arrangements around a detailed fictional scenario, and to test these through practical activities.
IPNDV engages a wide range of states in its work, including three of the five NPT Nuclear Weapons States.
Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT)
A verifiable ban on production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons is widely seen as one of the practical steps that could be taken toward nuclear disarmament. However, impasse in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has prevented negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT). Australia has actively supported a number of initiatives to advance international discussions on an FMCT, both to promote the commencement of negotiations, and to develop proposals that could assist negotiators. ASNO continues to support efforts by DFAT to advance these objectives.
2 Release of the first OPCW report attributing chemical weapons use in Syria, Media Release, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women; OPCW Investigation and Identification Team.
4 Ambassador of Australia for Arms Control and Counter-Proliferation, Media Release, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women.