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Nuclear Security: The International Atomic Energy Agency Could Improve Priority Setting, Performance Measures, and Funding Stabilization

GAO-19-429 Published: Jul 29, 2019. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2019.
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Fast Facts

Nuclear terrorism remains among the most significant threats to the United States and other nations. Nuclear materials stolen from poorly secured facilities could be used for a nuclear device. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s nuclear security work includes helping countries protect these facilities.

Among other things, we found the agency’s nuclear security program:

Doesn’t have the guidelines it needs to ensure it is appropriately prioritizing its work and targeting its resources

Relies heavily on voluntary contributions and hasn’t analyzed ways to stabilize its funding

We recommended the agency address these and other concerns.

The International Atomic Energy Agency conducts a training event

People wearing protective equipment and handling laboratory materials

People wearing protective equipment and handling laboratory materials

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) carries out its nuclear security program under its Division of Nuclear Security through four subprograms. IAEA activities under these subprograms include developing guidance, providing training, and assisting countries in enhancing nuclear and radiological material security.

IAEA plans its nuclear security work through several key documents, including a Nuclear Security Plan, which calls for activities to be prioritized. However, IAEA's planning documents do not include guidelines for prioritization. Instead, IAEA officials said they respond to member states' requests as they arrive and to the extent resources are available. By developing guidelines for prioritizing its nuclear security activities, IAEA could help ensure that it is allocating its resources to the areas of greatest need. IAEA has developed performance measures for its nuclear security program, but these measures do not have baselines or targets. This limits IAEA's ability to demonstrate the results of its nuclear security program.

IAEA member states disagree over the agency's role in nuclear security, and according to U.S. and other member-state officials and experts GAO interviewed, these disagreements create challenges for the agency, such as funding its nuclear security efforts. Officials added that states that do not support the agency's nuclear security role resist efforts to substantially raise the agency's regular budget for nuclear security, contributing to the program's heavy reliance on voluntary, or extra-budgetary, contributions from member states.

Extra-budgetary and Regular Budget Funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency's Division of Nuclear Security

Extra-budgetary and Regular Budget Funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency's Division of Nuclear Security

GAO previously reported that extra-budgetary funding is unreliable. Reliance on such funding affects nuclear security program planning, human resources, and sustainability. Experts and U.S. agency officials have suggested options to stabilize nuclear security program funding, but IAEA has not analyzed such options. By working with the United States and other member states to analyze options to stabilize nuclear security program funding, IAEA could ensure that it has sufficient, reliable resources to implement the Nuclear Security Plan.

Why GAO Did This Study

Nuclear terrorism remains a significant threat to the security of the United States and its allies and partners. U.S. efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism include working with IAEA, an autonomous international agency affiliated with the United Nations. The Department of State coordinates the United States' policy with and financial contributions to IAEA. IAEA's nuclear security program aims to assist countries in enhancing the physical protection, control, and accounting of their nuclear and radiological material and nuclear facilities.

GAO was asked to review IAEA's nuclear security program. This report examines (1) the structure and range of nuclear security work that IAEA conducts, (2) how IAEA plans and prioritizes its nuclear security work and measures performance, and (3) the challenges that IAEA's nuclear security program faces. GAO analyzed key IAEA documents and interviewed IAEA officials, U.S. and foreign government officials, and nuclear security experts.

Recommendations

GAO is making five recommendations to the Department of State, including that it work with IAEA to develop guidelines for prioritizing IAEA's nuclear security activities, develop program baselines and targets, and work with the United States and other member states to analyze options to stabilize nuclear security funding. State concurred with all five recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State The Secretary of State should work with IAEA and its member states through the Board of Governors to develop detailed guidelines for prioritizing nuclear security activities. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
The Department of State (State) agreed with this recommendation and has taken several actions to implement it. State reported in its January 2020 letter to GAO that it is: working with the IAEA to identify ways to better develop and implement strategic planning across the Division of Nuclear Security, potentially including through dedicated staff; conveying to IAEA that it should do more to synthesize information from donor areas of emphasis, member state requests, and the contents of Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plans into a set of imputed priorities; and doing more to coordinate among the larger donors to the Nuclear Security Fund (NSF) to optimize and enhance the way the Division of Nuclear Security prioritizes and carries out its nuclear security activities funded via the NSF. State noted several positive results stemming from these actions, including: (1) an increased emphasis in IAEA's most recent Nuclear Security Report on internal coordination and a more collaborative approach within the IAEA in the implementation of its nuclear security activities, which State believes will help reduce duplication, streamline Agency activities, increase efficiency and effectiveness, and maximize the benefits to IAEA member states; and (2) participation by a number of donors to the NSF in a series of informal coordination meetings with the IAEA that included discussing how the Agency views its priorities for its nuclear security activities, which State believes are more likely to result in positive outcomes than priorities negotiated at Board of Governors meetings. In a July 2021 follow-up meeting, State officials provided examples of progress to GAO, including: State's work directly with Division of Nuclear Security Director and staff, and through coordination with other major donors, to help IAEA develop clearer and more focused nuclear security priorities, resulting in a commitment from IAEA leadership to better align the nuclear security program's activities with member state priority nuclear security needs; improvements in IAEA's Nuclear Security Reports, including identification of specific priorities for the year ahead and accomplishments by priority area; and State plans to support a dedicated staff member at a senior level within the Division (i.e., a Cost Free Expert) to assist in cross-cutting planning and prioritization of IAEA's nuclear security activities.
Department of State The Secretary of State should work with IAEA and its member states through the Board of Governors to improve the nuclear security program's performance measures by developing baselines and measurable targets. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
The Department of State (State) agreed with this recommendation and agreed that more could be done by IAEA to define nuclear security program baselines and targets, especially on activities that are mostly or fully within the IAEA's remit. In its January 2020 letter to GAO, State noted that it would advocate for improved program management within the Division of Nuclear Security and that it would continue to pursue better performance measures during negotiations of future IAEA budgets and planning documents. In July 2021, State officials told us that they would continue to encourage IAEA to apply program management best practices, including comprehensively establishing performance measures, documenting baselines, setting clear goals, and measuring outcomes. State officials also told us that that a State-supported Cost Free Expert was placed within the Division of Nuclear Security in September 2022 to, among other things, assist the program with the development of improved performance measures. In addition, in February 2023, State officials told us that in the most recent IAEA Programme Performance Report for 2020-2021, issued in 2022 and which we reviewed, IAEA added contextual information about its nuclear security program metrics, including quantifiable targets for some program efforts. As a result, IAEA is better positioned to provide member states more useful information about the progress and impact of the agency's nuclear security program activities.
Department of State The Secretary of State should work with IAEA and its member states through the Board of Governors to improve how the Division of Nuclear Security (DNS) reports to member states by consistently including the results of performance measures in at least one of the reports. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Department of State (State) agreed with this recommendation and its January 2020 letter to GAO it indicated that it is working with the IAEA to improve its reporting. Specifically, State reported that in conjunction with its efforts to address recommendation 2, to improve nuclear security program performance measures, it has seen IAEA's Division of Nuclear Security make improvements in an effort to be more consistent and diligent about providing performance measures and reporting results to IAEA member states. Based on our July 2021 and February 2023 interview with State officials and our review of recent IAEA reporting, there is still no single IAEA report that reports comprehensively on Division of Nuclear Security performance related to all of the Division's established measures. We will review future IAEA reporting, including the 2023 IAEA Nuclear Security Report, to assess the extent to which the reports comprehensively address all of the nuclear security program performance measures. In November 2023, we reviewed IAEA's latest Nuclear Security Report and corresponded with State officials, and determined that no further progress had been made by IAEA to address this recommendation through improved reporting.
Department of State The Secretary of State should work with IAEA and its member states through the Board of Governors to analyze options to stabilize DNS's funding within current fiscal and political constraints to enhance the sustainability of IAEA's nuclear security program. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The Department of State (State) agreed with this recommendation, and in its January 2020 letter to GAO, State noted that the sustainability of the Division of Nuclear Security's budget remains a major area of focus. State noted that many IAEA member states maintain a position of zero real growth in IAEA's budget and are reluctant to reapportion funding to nuclear security activities from other IAEA programs. State reported that it will advocate for priority areas in IAEA budget negotiations, such as nuclear security, to gain a greater share of any agreed budget increases as an alternative to shifting funds from other programs. In July 2021 and February 2023 follow-up interviews with State officials, they identified examples of progress on this recommendation as a result of their efforts, including increased staffing within the Division of Nuclear Security through the IAEA Regular Budget, instead of from Extrabudgetary sources of support. However, State officials acknowledged more could be done to ensure a more predictable and sustainable level of funding for the Division. We will to continue to monitor developments and we will follow-up with State officials in 2023 following the approval of IAEA's budget for 2024 and 2025 at the September 2023 General Conference regarding further progress on this recommendation. We coordinated with State officials in November 2023 and confirmed that no measurable progress had been made at the General Conference or in the 2024/2025 biennial budget to further stabilize DNS funding.
Department of State The Secretary of State should work with IAEA and its member states through the Board of Governors to strengthen the agency's central coordinating role by following key practices for collaboration. (Recommendation 5)
Closed – Implemented
The State Department (State) agreed with this recommendation, and in its January 2020 letter to GAO it generally stated that it is working with IAEA and its member states to improve collaboration among nuclear security stakeholders and strengthen the Agency's central coordinating role. Based on our interview with State officials in July 2021 and our review of IAEA documentation in the fall of 2021, IAEA appears to have placed greater emphasis on promoting its nuclear security coordinating role and has provided more information in recent Agency reporting regarding its coordination efforts, consistent with our recommendation. Some examples in support of this conclusion include higher-quality reporting in IAEA's 2020 and 2021 Nuclear Security Reports regarding coordination efforts both internally and externally compared to the level of reporting by IAEA on these issues during our review; more significant leadership attention within IAEA to promoting the Agency's international coordinating role on nuclear security issues and strengthening its partnerships with other international organizations; and State's plans to support a Cost Free Expert within the Division of Nuclear Security in 2022 who will have a cross cutting responsibility for promoting IAEA's central coordinating role on nuclear security with member states and numerous international organizations.

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Best practicesInternational organizationsNuclear energyNuclear materialsNuclear safetyNuclear securityPerformance measurementProject managementProgram managementRadioactive materialsUranium