Vienna, 2 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - A bank of television screens in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna is due to go into operation soon. The screens will allow the United Nations agency to monitor sensitive corners of nuclear plants all over the world.
These are among the high-tech inspection measures contained in the Agency's newly strengthened surveillance protocol under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Television cameras will watch over the activities of scientists at the entrances of nuclear storerooms, processing plants and laboratories, and beam the pictures -- live via satellite -- to the nuclear security staff at IAEA headquarters in Vienna.
Other measures include continuous monitoring of air and dust samples around nuclear plants, with instantaneous satellite transmission of suspicious evidence of nuclear activity, and free access of Vienna experts to follow up surveillance alerts.
And, the Agency will be authorised to set up contact with the world's secret intelligence services, many of which are among the first to learn of clandestine nuclear weapons research.
The program has been developed over a period of five years, during which it was field tested in Hungary and Switzerland. It is described by IAEA Chairman, Ambassador Peter Walker of Canada, as the Agency's crowning achievement.
Canada is expected to be among the first of more than 130 countries to ratify the protocol over the next two years. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland are also anticipated to be among the first group of signatories.
IAEA chief spokesman David Kyd points out the speed with which countries sign up is often as much to do with their particular parliamentary procedures, as their willingness to submit to the enhanced inspections. In the case of some of the emerging Eastern European democracies, it is not clear which legal and parliamentary processes will be required.
But, according to some international experts, there may be difficulty in obtaining the goodwill of certain Asian and Middle Eastern states.
It was the example of Iraq's nuclear build up to the verge of weapons capability which provided the impetus for the new protocol. The experience of Iraq also persuaded nuclear experts that it was not sufficient to monitor only the countries suspected of developing nuclear weapons, but also keep an eye on those who provide essential assistance.
Companies in France, Germany and Britain have been implicated in connection with Iraq's attempts to obtain a nuclear arsenal. But, according to IAEA spokesman Kyd, it would be difficult to find a Western nuclear country that was not, sometimes unwittingly, involved in a country's clandestine nuclear activity.
While the IAEA inspection procedures do not apply to countries which have nuclear weapons capabilities, some of the nuclear powers will voluntarily submit to inspections. Russia has agreed to some inspections as a token of goodwill.
Britain and France have indicated some willingness, but only the United States has voluntarily submitted to the full program. China has yet to voice any agreement.
The program may also serve to improve the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Ukraine recently announced plans to build a nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant at Chernobyl. But the possibility of it being a source of weapons-grade nuclear material is causing considerable international resistance. A virtually foolproof monitoring system will do much to alleviate such fears.
(Nigel Glass is a member of the Vienna-based Central European News organization, which routinely contributes news items to RFE/RL.)