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.

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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)
Open
The Department of State (State) agreed with this recommendation and it has identified several actions it has taken to implement this recommendation. State also has identified some progress resulting from its actions. Among other actions, 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 inputed 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 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. As of July 2021, GAO is following up with the State Department on this recommendation and will update it when we receive information to determine the extent to which its efforts lead to more concrete prioritization guidelines for IAEA's nuclear security program.
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)
Open
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 has advocated for improved program management within the Division of Nuclear Security. State believed the advocacy is having an impact, as is evident in the most recent Nuclear Security Report, which included reference to the continued application of a results-based approach to nuclear security activities which help drive positive outcomes from Agency assistance. State also noted in its letter that it continues to pursue better performance measures during negotiations of the next IAEA Programme and Budget (for 2022-2023) and in the development of the next IAEA Nuclear Security Plan (for 2022-2025). State said that it will continue to encourage IAEA to apply program management best practices, including comprehensively establishing performance measures, documenting baselines, setting clear goals, and measuring outcomes. As of July 2021, GAO is following up with the State Department on this recommendation and will review the next IAEA Programme and Budget and the 2022-2025 Nuclear Security Plan (which should be issued in September 2021) to assess whether IAEA has improved nuclear security program performance measures, including by incorporating baselines and measurable targets.
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. GAO is following up with the State Department and reviewing the most recent available IAEA nuclear security reports to clarify improvements it has observed in IAEA's nuclear security program 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. State noted that this remains a challenge, but that it will continue to identify options to enhance the sustainability of the IAEA's nuclear security program, including how best to also strengthen governance of the Nuclear Security Fund. As of July 2021, GAO is following up with State regarding the options it has identified and pursued to improve the sustainability of the nuclear security program and its funding. We will update the recommendation when we receive information.
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)
Open
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. However, State's letter did not specify actions that State is undertaking in this regard. Instead, State's letter reiterated coordinating actions that IAEA had already been undertaking at the time of our report. As of July 2021, GAO is following up with State to better understand the actions, if any, it is taking or has planned to strengthen IAEA's central coordinating role, as well as any actions IAEA is taking independently to improve its coordinating role consistent with key practices for effective collaboration. We will update this recommendation when we receive information.

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