International Nuclear Safeguards

International nuclear safeguards are technical measures used to verify that a country is in compliance with its legal obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to use nuclear material and technology only for peaceful purposes. These measures are applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on nuclear material and facilities.

Understanding international safeguards and implementing safeguards by design concepts early on can help developers achieve cost and schedule benefits. The U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) is prepared to assist U.S. industry in understanding international safeguards obligations and can facilitate information exchanges and dialogue between vendors and the IAEA.

What are international safeguards?

International nuclear safeguards are technical measures applied by the IAEA to verify that a country is in compliance with its international legal agreements and is not diverting nuclear material to weapons programs or pursuing undeclared nuclear activities.

The IAEA’s nuclear safeguards objectives are to deter proliferation through early detection of:
  • The diversion of nuclear material from facilities;
  • The undeclared production or processing of nuclear material; and
  • Undeclared nuclear material or activities in the State as a whole.

IAEA verification is based on information provided by States about their nuclear material inventories, facilities and nuclear-related capabilities, and access facilitated by States to their facilities and other locations. To achieve its objectives, the IAEA conducts inspections and applies technical measures, such as nuclear material accountancy; containment and surveillance; and unattended monitoring. Vendors and operators play an essential role in facilitating the implementation of these measures.

What is safeguards by design? 

Safeguards by design (SBD) is a voluntary process to integrate features into a nuclear facility’s design to facilitate the application of IAEA safeguards.

By considering IAEA safeguards obligations early in the facility design development, the SBD process helps vendors avoid costly and time-consuming retrofits or design changes and prevents international safeguards obligations from unduly interfering with the smooth construction and operation of a facility. 

SBD is an iterative process of dialog and information exchange among a designer, a State regulatory authority, a facility operator, and the IAEA. The main steps in the SBD process are:

IAEA confirms safeguards equipment is functional and meets requirements.

Designer becomes familiar with IAEA safeguards through engagement with NNSA subject matter experts, who may conduct an assessment of the design to identify potential issues and offer options to address them.

NNSA and designer engage with the IAEA to familiarize the agency with the design and facilitate its development of a safeguards approach.

Facility design information is confidentially provided by the State in which the facility will be built to the IAEA.

IAEA conducts design information verification and this continues throughout the lifecycle of the facility.

IAEA confirms that safeguards equipment is functional and meets requirements and facility operator notifies IAEA in advance for any proposed design changes in the future.

How do U.S. agencies work with developers to address international safeguards obligations and guidance?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for providing the regulatory framework and requirements to license a facility in the U.S. NNSA is focused on advising industry on the international frameworks and considerations—including export controls, nuclear cooperation agreements, and the application of IAEA safeguards—to be best positioned to export their technologies.

The interactions between vendors and the NRC and DOE are separate but complementary. Most designers will refer to NRC guidance and engage NRC officials early in the design process with questions about domestic technology licensing and deployment. Similarly, engagement with NNSA focuses on helping reactor developers to prepare for deployment in international markets, which comes with additional requirements.

What resources are available for vendors? 

NNSA’s Office of Nonproliferation and Arms Control (NPAC) sponsors SBD projects that bring together NNSA experts with industry partners to evaluate how international safeguards obligations can be integrated better into the design process of new nuclear facilities. These projects also help facilitate dialogue between facility designers, national regulators and operators, and the IAEA.

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Within its IAEA safeguards-related programs, NPAC:
  • Coordinates closely with the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE)’s Advanced Reactor Safeguards sub-program, which supports near-term research in areas related to national requirements for material control and accounting and physical protection to help facilitate domestic deployment of advanced reactor designs;
  • Implements SBD projects with the advanced reactor community, including in direct partnership with small modular reactor vendors to support international deployment;
  • Coordinates with the Nuclear Energy Institute’s and NRC’s Advanced Reactor Working Groups; and
  • Established an SBD working group to provide access to international safeguards experts, offer the most up-to-date SBD information to U.S. industry, and share lessons learned and examples of how SBD has been applied to nuclear facilities.