The IAEA at 50

Despite Some False Steps, The Nuclear Watch Dog has Demonstrated its Worth

This summer’s 50th anniversary of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) founding offers an opportunity for stocktaking about the world’s most important nuclear watchdog. It comes at a time when the Agency has assumed increasing responsibility for nuclear security. The recent dispatch of inspectors to verify the shutdown of North Korea’s weapons reactor and the continuing efforts to ferret out Iran’s nuclear intentions are only the most visible signs of its monitoring function.

But, while there is much to celebrate, questions remain about whether the IAEA can increase its capacity both to combat proliferation and promote nuclear power plant safety. History suggests that without greater authority, the Agency will be incapable of dramatically reducing global nuclear risks.

The International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters, located at the UN in Vienna | Photo: United Nations

The IAEA traces its lineage to the early dark days of the Cold War. In his December 1953 UN General Assembly “Atoms for Peace” address, US President Dwight Eisenhower sought to relax atomic weapons competition with the Soviet Union by calling for the creation of an international nuclear fuel bank stocked with superpower fissile material. Management would come from a new global nuclear organisation. Although the fuel bank never emerged, the seed for the organisation took root, giving rise to the IAEA in 1957.

In time, the IAEA became a nuclear brain bank, assisting developing countries with their peaceful nuclear needs. It educated nuclear operators, generated safety and protection standards, promoted the benefits of the atom for industry, agriculture, and medicine, and much more. In 1970, boosted by the new Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the IAEA acquired expanded authority to safeguard nuclear elements against diversion. Today, this responsibility extends to more than 180 countries.

In practice, however, the IAEA has an uneven record in tracking down nuclear cheats. In 1981, following Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, IAEA inspector Roger Richter told the US Congress how Saddam had blocked IAEA access to nuclear sites. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq once again embarrassed the IAEA, when inspectors uncovered a major covert nuclear weapons program. In 2003, Libya’s renunciation of its secret weapons revealed how another country had hoodwinked the Agency. And, only recently, the IAEA discovered that Egypt conducted non-safeguarded nuclear experiments decades ago.

Despite these errors, in the past few years, the IAEA has demonstrated its worth as an effective nuclear sleuth. In 2002, its inspectors revealed North Korea’s cheating, prompting UN sanctions. (Unfortunately, this did not halt the country’s subsequent withdrawal from the NPT.)

The IAEA’s tenacity also has smoked out much of Iran’s nuclear program, albeit only after an Iranian dissident group disclosed the existence of some of the regime’s secret facilities. In early 2003, its onsite presence in Iraq established that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapons program, contrary to the Bush administration’s representations. And in 2004, the IAEA blew the whistle on South Korea’s non-safeguarded plutonium and enrichment experiments.

Beyond truth seeking, the IAEA has taken a leadership role in promoting new initiatives to reduce weapons proliferation. It has pressed for multinational nuclear fuel facilities that would eliminate the need for national installations that draw proliferation concerns. Director General Mohamed El Baradei has called upon the US to negotiate directly with Iran over its atomic program. He also has attempted to generate momentum for a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone.

Looking forward, the IAEA confronts both internal and external challenges. Internally, mandatory retirements will soon cost the Agency 50% of its senior management. Nor has the Agency’s budget kept pace with its increasing workload.

More significant is the IAEA’s failure to overcome resistance to conclude comprehensive safeguard agreements. Some countries oppose the application of NPT safeguards to small quantities of nuclear materials. The unwillingness of more than half the NPT membership to apply the Additional Protocol, which gives the IAEA new flexibility to uncover clandestine nuclear activity, undermines global security.

The projected rapid growth of nuclear energy will generate yet more challenges. To date, reactor construction has been concentrated in the industrial world. In coming years, developing countries with little nuclear experience – Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and others – will attempt to leap onto the atomic bandwagon.

Without authority to enforce safe practices, the IAEA cannot better assure nuclear safety in these or other countries. And without better intelligence and backing from the UN Security Council to impose significant, timely, and certain penalties on nuclear violators, the IAEA will have difficulty in fulfilling its security mandate. So, although the IAEA will continue to play a vital role, it will be more of a band-aid than a cure for the atomic risks that we will all have to assume.

Bennett Ramberg served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs under President George H.W. Bush. He is the author and editor of six books on international security.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.

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