How Nuclear Detectives Work

The IAEA and Nuclear Proliferation

These IAEA inspectors might not look like super sleuths, but they play a vital role in policing nuclear proliferation.
These IAEA inspectors might not look like super sleuths, but they play a vital role in policing nuclear proliferation.
Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images

If you've spent much time in a movie theater, you've probably witnessed an armed standoff. The participants in these scenes range from gun-slinging cowboys to killer androids, but the scenario is typically the same: Two or more opposing forces draw their guns at the same time, resulting in a stalemate. If one side shoots, the other side shoots -- and everyone goes down in a hail of bullets. This is generally the point in the movie where dialogue takes center stage.

In movie standoffs, the desired outcome is that everyone slowly puts his or her weapon away and some sort of truce prevails. The same holds true for nuclear arms proliferation as well, thanks to the notion of mutual assured destruction. This boils down to one simple idea: "If you nuke me, I'll nuke you, and neither of us will come out ahead." It's a delicate situation, but one that can be reasoned through. In fact, in 1970, 190 nations signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), an effort to not only convince everyone to lower their weapons, but to steadily disarm as well.

But if you've watched enough cinematic gun-pointing, you know a tentative stalemate can easily spiral into chaos when someone else suddenly enters the room. Similarly, it's essential to nuclear disarmament that no one else suddenly enters the standoff.

To help in this matter, the United Nations charged the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with the task of defining and inspecting safeguards to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy, while also making sure nations don't pursue the development of nuclear weapons. Government officials aren't always that forthcoming about secret nuclear programs, and military intelligence sometimes misses the mark on finding weapons of mass destruction. After all, you can scrutinize satellite imagery and track the transportation of raw materials all you want, but the best proof inevitably comes from on-site analysis.

Nuclear materials emit radiation and are easy to identity at close range with the right equipment. In some cases, intelligence agencies can sneak detection devices into an area to follow up on suspicions, but this isn't always an option. The IAEA takes a more direct, legalistic approach, using international pressure to gain a country's permission to tour facilities in such countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The IAEA depends on U.N. mandates and willing cooperation to perform inspections, and this factor has worked against the agency in the past. For instance, North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors from the country in 2002, and in 2007, Iran refused to allow IAEA personnel unlimited access to its nuclear facilities [source: BBC].

But in the best of scenarios, the agency is able to provide concrete evidence for U.N. nations to use in confronting countries suspected of developing nuclear weap­ons. For instance, in 2003, the IAEA was able to confront both Libya and Iran with evidence of military-oriented nuclear activity. As a result, Libya abandoned its nuclear program, and Iran gave up the identities of suppliers in Pakistan [source: The Economist].

The nuclear detectives themselves range greatly in age and nationality. While they boast backgrounds ranging from scientific research to hands-on military weapons experience, all inspectors undergo extensive training prior to deployment.

­The IAEA was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for its efforts, despite withstanding criticism over the years from both sides. Nations under investigation have accused the organization of attempting to keep beneficial nuclear technology out of the hands of developing nations. Meanwhile, the United States has charged the group with being too lenient on such nations.