From its base in Austria’s capital, the International Atomic Energy Agency keeps a weather eye on global nuclear risks. According to its head, Yukiya Amano, the outlook has rarely been stormier.
Yukiya Amano is not a man prone to hyperbole. The world’s leading diplomat on nuclear weapons is self-deprecating about his career and his talents, claiming that he didn’t “perform well” in the economics department at Japan’s foreign ministry and suggesting that he only focused on nuclear issues because none of his colleagues were interested. And like all diplomats, the 70-year-old – who was born less than two years after the US’s nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – chooses his words exceedingly carefully.
So when, in his own quiet way, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) explains that he has never been more worried about the threat of North Korea using nuclear weapons or the possibility of a terrorist group using nuclear material in an attack on a city, it is worth listening to him.
Amano has been the chief of the world’s nuclear watchdog since 2009 and has just been appointed for a third four-year term. His role is not to make deals but to help implement them. The agency’s inspectors are currently in Iran verifying the international agreement on the country’s nuclear programme. Despite US president Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, Amano is adamant that the inspectors will remain in place. In his large wood-panelled office on the 28th floor of the Vienna International Centre, he outlines his fears.
MONOCLE: The deal struck with Iran by the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the P5+1, has been criticised by Donald Trump. How important is it?
Yukiya Amano: This was a very important deal because we experienced a lot of difficulties [as of 2003]. Iran was in non-compliance with the safeguard agreement [of the non-proliferation treaty]. Security Council resolutions were adopted but Iran did not implement them. The nuclear capabilities of Iran increased and strengthened but they didn’t show any indication of heeding the voice of the international community. Things started to change after the coming of President Rouhani. The P5+1 and Iran reached an agreement. This means a very complicated issue with a long history could be sorted out.
M: What would happen if that agreement were to be ripped up?
YA: It is not that easy. This is not a bilateral agreement, it is an eight-party agreement that is endorsed by the UN and we have a robust verification system. People talk about the collapse of this agreement but it is not that easy.
M: If one party unilaterally decides not to implement their obligations, what happens to the deal then?
YA: Unless we are told by the board of governors of the IAEA to discontinue the monitoring and verification, we’ll continue. Unless otherwise advised the agreement stays valid.
M: North Korea has no Rouhani-type figure. How worried are you?
YA: Very worried. Very worried. Looking from Vienna, the Iran nuclear issue is the most difficult one. I come from another part of the world: Japan, where the North Korean situation is much worse. North Korea has declared its withdrawal from the NPT and asked our inspectors to leave the country. Our inspectors left in April 2009. They undertake nuclear-weapons tests and they launch missiles very frequently. Last year they conducted nuclear tests twice, threatened neighbouring countries and beyond. This is a very bad situation. It is a serious threat to the region and beyond.
M: Has it ever been as bad as this?
YA: The situation has entered a new stage. They have never launched this many missiles in the past; conducting two nuclear tests in one year is very worrying. We continue to observe the situation in the nuclear city of Yongbyon through satellite imagery. It’s a situation that’s very, very worrying – and it’s getting worse. We maintain a small, dedicated team on North Korea. We maintain the training level of our inspectors and update our verification plan. We are ready to send back our inspectors to Yongbyon at short notice when a political agreement is reached.
M: Are you optimistic that there will be a political agreement?
YA: I do not mean a solution but a political agreement to send back inspectors. That could be the start of negotiations. I cannot be optimistic. It is more likely that the situation deteriorates. Tension is high; things are pointing in the wrong direction instead of dialogue.
M: The other big fear is that nuclear weapons will get into the hands of terrorists. Are those fears still valid?
YA: This argument is more valid now than before. In the past it was not clear whether we were talking about nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. It is not necessary for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons – nuclear material is enough. Even low-grade nuclear materials are enough to put into a conventional explosive and detonate in a city. We have a database with a lot of data indicating illicit trafficking. Some of them are very worrying. Some traffickers are trying to sell the material by making special containers, samples. Nuclear terrorism can be done not only by using nuclear material but by hackers. Hacking is an effective way of damaging nuclear facilities and power plants.
M: Does that keep you up at night?
YA: Yes. On this issue let me be clear: nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists is the responsibility of each state. They have to ensure the highest level of nuclear security. Our role is to help them. We are doing everything humanly possible to help them. We maintain the database, we train border guards and custom officers, we provide nuclear detection equipment.
M: Would you say that some countries aren’t doing enough?
YA: The countries that make me worried are those that don’t recognise this danger, because a terrorist always targets the weakest link.