IAEA staff installing surveillance cameras at a nuclear facility. (Supplied)

By Faramarz Davar

February 25, 2021

The interim agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) follows a decision by the Islamic Republic to suspend the implementation of the Additional Protocol, which allowed IAEA inspectors to conduct unannounced inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. If suspicious activity was noted in a supposedly non-nuclear location, under the Additional Protocol the IAEA could take samples to make sure there was no nuclear activity taking place.

After five years of the protocol being in place, the agency’s inspections have now ceased and its cameras will continue to monitor activities only for the next three months.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is the United Nations’ specialized body for the prevention of the acquisition of nuclear weapons and the civilian use of nuclear energy. It has a mandate and a variety of means to monitor member states’ nuclear activities. These states have in turn signed agreements with the IAEA.

The agreements are intended to ensure that IAEA inspectors receive accurate and timely information about the core activities of different countries, and also enable inspectors to distinguish falsified or tampered information from actual information.

To date, the IAEA has 1,250 surveillance cameras installed in 250 nuclear facilities in 33 countries, including Iran. Of these, more than 400 remote cameras are connected to the Agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. These cameras are constantly being replaced by new generations and models that have advanced technology. It is, in effect, becoming harder and harder to send them false or manipulated data.

What Types of Cameras are Being Utilized in Iran?

The IAEA’s portable cameras are used for short-term temporary surveillance. They are not attached to the interior of a nuclear facility but might, for example, sit on top of a facility’s outer walls. They can run on batteries for months without needing to be plugged into the mains, and can record environmental information.

Some of its other cameras have long double-sided lenses that can function underwater. These are used inside facilities, such as in the fuel storage pools used in nuclear reactors.

One of the advantages of the agency’s newer models is their ability to produce 180-degree views. Although these cameras are stationary and do not move. The camera memory records the details of events across the location they are installed in and can therefore much more easily detect where something has been tampered with.

Metal seals, also known as cobra seals, are used to prevent unauthorized access to the memory compartments of these cameras. The outer part of the cobra seal bears a serial number and the inner part has unique markings on that can only be read by inspectors. These markings are recorded before the seal is broken. If the seal is manipulated – for instance, when the camera compartment is opened to extract information – they will change.

Iran’s next scheduled inspection is due to take place in June 2021. The sealed devices will be returned to the headquarters of the IAEA and carefully analyzed to ensure the seals are original and have not been interfered with. This in turn also allows IAEA inspectors in Iran and other member states to trust the camera data. The inspectors can be certain that the host country did not feed the camera falsified information, but also that Iran cannot deny any of the data that was recorded in the time the camera was active.

The agency also has laser-scanning cameras at its disposal. These take regular 3D images of rooms inside nuclear facilities and compare them to previous images to see if there has been a change in arrangement. Three-dimensional photographs are used to ensure that the arrangement of the nuclear facilities is consistent with the building plans previously submitted to the IAEA.

What’s at Stake?

Some of the tools used in IAEA safeguards are permanently installed in nuclear facilities, such as cameras. The information of these cameras, if not of a type that transmits directly to Vienna, is extracted, inspected and analyzed by inspectors in the presence of representatives from the country, and it remains inside the country.

At present, the cameras installed at Iran’s nuclear facilities in accordance with the quarterly agreement between the Islamic Republic and the IAEA are of this type. According to Iranian officials and the IAEA, they do not send any information directly to the IAEA’s headquarters.

Rafael Grossi, the agency’s current director-general, said that although the IAEA has no immediate access to the camera content using this method, at the end of three months “we will find out what happened during this time: exactly how many items were made or how much material was processed or enriched.”

Agency inspectors also have mobile cameras that are currently only used in accordance with safeguarding agreements. Because there are currently no intrusive inspections in Iran, they are used in periodic inspections that have nothing to do with the three-month temporary agreement.

IAEA inspectors try to use the cameras to verify that protected material and activities, such as reserves of enriched uranium, are not being used for non-peaceful means and no substance is being moved outside the facility secretly. Should this have happened, it means the inspectors can be notified immediately.

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.