Nuclear Nonproliferation:

Strengthened Oversight Needed to Address Proliferation and Management Challenges in IAEA's Technical Cooperation Program

GAO-09-275: Published: Mar 5, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2009.

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A key mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy through its Technical Cooperation (TC) program, which provides equipment, training, fellowships, and other services to its member states. The United States provides approximately 25 percent of the TC program's annual budget. This report addresses the (1) extent to which the United States and IAEA have policies limiting member states' participation in the TC program on the basis of nuclear proliferation and related concerns; (2) extent to which the United States and IAEA evaluate and monitor TC projects for proliferation concerns; and (3) any limitations and challenges in IAEA's management of the TC program. To address these issues, GAO interviewed relevant officials at the Departments of State (State) and Energy (DOE) and IAEA; analyzed IAEA, DOE, and national laboratory data; and assessed State and IAEA policies toward the TC program.

Neither State nor IAEA seeks to systematically limit TC assistance to countries the United States has designated as state sponsors of terrorism--Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria--even though under U.S. law these countries are subject to sanctions. Together, these four countries received more than $55 million in TC assistance from 1997 through 2007. In addition, TC funding has been provided to states that are not party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)--India, Israel, and Pakistan--and neither the United States nor IAEA has sought to exclude these countriesfrom participating in the TC program. Finally, IAEA member statesare not required to complete comprehensive safeguards or additional protocol agreements with IAEA--which allow IAEA to monitor declared nuclear activities and detect clandestine nuclear programs--to be eligible for TC assistance, even though U.S. and IAEA officials have stressed the need for all countries to bring such arrangements into force as soon as possible. The proliferation concerns associated with the TC program are difficult for the United States to fully identify, assess, and resolve for several reasons. While State has implemented an interagency process to review proposed TC projects for proliferation risks, the effectiveness of these reviews is limited because IAEA does not provide the United States with sufficient or timely information on TC proposals. Of the 1,565 TC proposals reviewed by DOE and the U.S. national laboratories for possible proliferation risks from 1998 through 2006, information for 1,519 proposals, or 97 percent, consisted of only project titles. IAEA faces several limitations and challenges in effectively managing the TC program. First, the TC program's impact in meeting development and other needs of member states is unclear because IAEA has not updated and revised the program's performance metrics since 2002. Second, the TC program is limited by financial constraints, including the failure of many member states to pay their full share of support to the program's Technical Cooperation Fund (TCF). In 2007, the TCF experienced a shortfall of $3.5 million, or 4 percent, of the $80 million total target budget, because 62 member states did not pay their full expected contributions, including 47 states that made no payment at all. Furthermore, IAEA has not developed a policy for determining when countries should be graduated from receiving TC assistance, including those defined by the UN as high-income countries. Finally, the TC program's long-term viability is uncertain because of limitations in IAEA efforts to track how project results are sustained and because of shortcomings in strategies to develop new TC program partners and donors.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: If Congress wishes to make known that the United States does not support IAEA's policy of permitting TC projects in countries that State has designated as state sponsors of terrorism, or other countries where other concerns persist, it may wish to explicitly require--as it currently does with Cuba and has done in the past with Iran, Libya, and the Territories Under the Jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority--that State withhold a proportionate share of the U.S. voluntary contribution to the TC program that is equivalent to the amounts of TCF funding that would otherwise be made available to these countries. Alternatively, if Congress wishes to obtain additional information before making this decision, it may wish to require State to report to Congress explaining its rationale for not withholding a proportionate share of the U.S. contribution to the TCF for U.S.-designated state sponsors of terrorism.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2011 that would have required State to withhold a share of its voluntary contribution to IAEA proportional to the amount of TC funding IAEA had provided in 2007 and 2008 to countries the United States has designated as state sponsors of terrorism. However, Congress has not enacted legislation explicitly directing State to withold a proportionate share of the U.S. voluntary contribution to the TC program that is equivalent to the amounts of TCF funding that would otherwise be made available to these countries. State continues to strongly oppose such a witholding measure because, among other things, it would negatively impact the ability of the United States to achieve other objectives within IAEA.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To address the range of proliferation and management concerns related to the TC program, the Secretary of State, working with IAEA and member states through the Board of Governors, should explore establishing a formal mechanism to facilitate greater and more timely information sharing on TC project proposals between IAEA and the United States and other countries--including detailed information on the TC proposals themselves, as well as the results of IAEA's internal proliferation reviews of the proposals--so that proliferation and other concerns can be identified and addressed early in the project development cycle.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State officials reported that they had received greater information from IAEA on TC project proposals and had received this information earlier than previously, allowing for more timely and effective U.S. reviews of proposals for potential proliferation concerns.

    Recommendation: To address the range of proliferation and management concerns related to the TC program, the Secretary of State, working with IAEA and member states through the Board of Governors, should explore promoting a regular and systematic process for obtaining, retaining, and updating information on prior TC project fellows to better track where and how the knowledge and expertise they have obtained is being applied.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2011, IAEA implemented a new electronic system call the "InTouch Platform" that will allow IAEA to remain in contact with TC program fellows. However, State officials noted that participation in the system is voluntary and former TC fellows are not required to update information on their continuing activities and whereabouts.

    Recommendation: To address the range of proliferation and management concerns related to the TC program, the Secretary of State, working with IAEA and member states through the Board of Governors, should explore strengthening the TC program's mechanisms for collecting member states' contributions to the TCF to include withholding from nonpaying states a percentage of TC assistance equivalent to the percentage of their target rate that they fail to contribute to the TCF.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State officials told us that this recommendation had not been implemented by IAEA and that such a proposal was unlikely to be approved by the IAEA Board of Governors, as it would conflict IAEA member state rights for access to TC assistance.

    Recommendation: To address the range of proliferation and management concerns related to the TC program, the Secretary of State, working with IAEA and member states through the Board of Governors, should explore establishing criteria for determining when member states, especially those defined as high-income countries, no longer need TC assistance in particular fields and when such states could be graduated from further TC support altogether.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to State officials, no formal policy establishing criteria for determining when member states no longer require TC program assistance has been established by IAEA, as this would conflict with the right of IAEA member state access to TC support. However, according to State officials, IAEA has informally had discussions with some member states regarding their continuing need for TC assistance, and some states have voluntarily renounced their need for TC assistance in certain types of TC projects and areas. State officials believed that this would result in fewer high income countries receiving TC assistance and free up TC resources to support more work in lower income countries in the future.

    Recommendation: To address the range of proliferation and management concerns related to the TC program, the Secretary of State, working with IAEA and member states through the Board of Governors, should explore seeking to implement new results-based performance metrics for the TC program that establish specific national, regional, and interregional social and economic needs and measure the collective impact of TC projects in meeting those objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State officials told us that despite intial skepticism and hestiation by IAEA to adopt such metrics, IAEA has undertaken steps to foster results-based performance measures for TC projects. These steps have included IAEA sponsorship of an interregional TC project and issuance of guidelines that are designed to promote results-based management of TC projects by IAEA member states. Documentation IAEA provided to us in March 2011 noted that the TC program was developing standard performance indicators for each of the TC program's 30 fields of activities.

    Recommendation: To address the range of proliferation and management concerns related to the TC program, the Secretary of State, working with IAEA and member states through the Board of Governors, should explore focusing the TC program on a more limited number of high-priority technical areas to maximize the impact of program resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In documentation provided to us in March 2011, IAEA reported that it had consolidated the field of activities covered by the TC program from 140 fields to 30 fields, notified member states that no more than 8 active TC projects will be supported per country, and undertaken a major management effort to close long-standing TC projects. According to IAEA, these steps were expected to lead to a smaller overall portfolio of TC projects. State officials told us that progress had been made in setting priorities for the TC program, including efforts to identify technical support areas where there was an active commercial presence and in which TC support could add little value.

    Recommendation: To address the range of proliferation and management concerns related to the TC program, the Secretary of State, working with IAEA and member states through the Board of Governors, should explore encouraging the TC program to reach out to private sector entities as part of its new partner and donor development strategy.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to State officials, outreach to the private sector has been a high priority of the new IAEA Deputy Director General for Technical Cooperation. State officials indicated that IAEA is doing its utmost to build stronger relationships with private companies, the World Bank, and other multilateral international organizations to increase the number of TC program partners and potential donors. State officials also acknowledged the commercial success of some TC programs, especially those in the medical radiation and cancer therapy area.

    Recommendation: To address the range of proliferation and management concerns related to the TC program, the Secretary of State, working with IAEA and member states through the Board of Governors, should explore requesting member states to assess in their TC project proposals the prospects for commercialization of and private sector investment in the results of the projects. Such steps could include requiring information in the proposals on potential business plans, marketing strategies, and strategies for attracting commercial partners once IAEA support has concluded.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In March 2011, we reported that no formal mechanism for assessing commercialization or private sector potential had been incorporated into the TC proposal development process, and State officials told us in August 2013 that there did not appear to have been any further progress made in this area since 2011.

    Recommendation: To clarify and improve U.S. oversight of the TC program, the Secretary of State should undertake enhancing record-keeping and formally document management actions regarding the discussion, action, and disposition of TC project proposals that DOE and the national laboratories identify as having potential proliferation concerns.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State has implemented a new e-mail and cable management system that State officials told us in March 2011 would improve storage and retrievability of their records regarding the discussion, action, and disposition of TC project proposals that DOE and its national laboratories identified during the interagency review process as having potential proliferation concerns. In addition, in August 2013, State officials indicated that there is now a person in the State office overseeing IAEA issues reponsible for keeping records related to potentially problematic TC proposals, including "record" emails and other correspondence related to interagency review of the proposals.

    Recommendation: To clarify and improve U.S. oversight of the TC program, the Secretary of State should undertake issuing formal guidance with well-defined criteria--such as countries designated by State as sponsors of terrorism or gross human rights violators--that State should use as the basis for approving or rejecting TC fellowship requests for nuclear studies in the United States. This guidance could include, among other things, a list of specific countries from which State would not approve TC fellows that could be updated and revised annually, or as other circumstances warrant.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2011, State officials informed us that State has developed formal guidance establishing criteria for accepting or denying applications from TC fellows from foreign countries requesting opportunities to study nuclear issues at institutions in the United States. Among other things, this guidance states that TC fellowship applications for nuclear studies in the United States from countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism and from countries deemed gross human rights violators would not be approved.

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