The IAEA and its functions

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in 1957 and has 169 member states (as of December 2017). This scientific and technical institution has its headquarters in Vienna. Although run autonomously, the IAEA is associated by treaty with the United Nations system. It reports annually to the UN General Assembly and Security Council and can inform these bodies of potential dangers its experts identify if there is a need for UN intervention. Its mission, as defined in the IAEA statutes, is to “accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world" and to foster international cooperation on the use of radioactive substances. The organization is also charged with ensuring that the use of nuclear technology and fissile material remains limited to the civil sector. Its remit is to ensure that this technology is not used “to further any military purpose”.

The idea of founding such an agency was first expressed in a UN General Assembly resolution in 1948. The original vision was to create an organization for the civil use of atomic energy that would own and operate every civil nuclear installation worldwide. When this proved unrealistic, it was proposed that the IAEA should act more like a “bank” from which countries could borrow fissile material for peaceful purposes. This was the approach taken by, among others, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1953 “Atoms for Peace Initiative”. But this, too, proved unfeasible. In the end, the IAEA was set up as a forum for cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear technology and as an institution for monitoring and inspecting national stocks of fissile material on the territory of its members and for promoting safe use and storage. Its control measures help to ensure that fissile material does not find its way into the wrong hands or be diverted into military programmes. In this way, the IAEA plays an important role in curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, materials and technologies. This second function became even more central to its mission after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force in 1970 and made the IAEA its verification agency.

The governance bodies of the IAEA are the General Conference, the Board of Governors (with 35 members) and the Secretariat, headed by the Director General (currently Yukiya Amano from Japan). The work of the IAEA Secretariat is organized in six main areas: technical cooperation, nuclear energy, nuclear safety and security, nuclear science and applications, safeguards on nuclear material, and agency management.

The task of promoting the peaceful use of atomic energy falls to three of these departments: Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Science, and Technical Cooperation. The first assists member states with the operation of their facilities for the nuclear fuel cycle; the second helps with the application of nuclear isotopes in water management, energy, health, agriculture, food and biodiversity; and the third department oversees concrete support projects such as missions of experts, trainings, technical assistance and other matters. As for the function of “nuclear safety and security”, the IAEA arranges technical cooperation aimed at the safe and incident-free operation of nuclear plants on the one hand and, on the other, helps to prevent material proliferation. Following the disasters in the nuclear power plants at Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), the IAEA has repeatedly announced a significant strengthening of its efforts to ensure safe and secure operation of nuclear facilities.

The rationale behind the IEAE’s supervisory role is to guarantee that the civil use of nuclear technology does not turn into military use. The monitoring system that now exists was established in several stages. The first step was to negotiate a framework for the measures and detailed guidelines for IAEA inspections. This came about in 1972, two years after the NPT entered into force, when members agreed to a document called Information Circular 153 (INFCIRC 153). This formed the basis for concluding control agreements between the IAEA and individual member states to determine when and to what extent non-nuclear-weapon states are obliged to provide the IAEA with specified information on all their nuclear facilities, materials and programmes. Control agreements also empower the IAEA to verify the correctness of the data through inspections. If the IAEA takes the view that doubts or questions remain about the peaceful character of a country’s nuclear programme, the agency is entitled to conduct additional enquiries that will either clear the relevant country of any suspicion or lead to problems or violations being reported to the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly for them to consider further measures.

After the Gulf War of 1991, IAEA inspectors judged that Iraq, a non-nuclear-weapon state, had been running a covert nuclear weapons programme for many years. The discovery of the programme led the agency to conclude that the existing monitoring arrangements were not adequate to prevent a country from establishing its own nuclear weapons programme in secret. More comprehensive, additional control options were deemed necessary. By 1997 the IAEA members had negotiated a voluntary additional protocol (Model Additional Protocol, INFCIRC 540) on more far-reaching measures. States that have accepted this protocol allow the IAEA experts to conduct additional on-the-spot inspections at short notice and take environmental samples. They also undertake to inform the agency earlier and in more detail of any plans for new nuclear facilities and provide the IAEA with additional information such as import and export declarations of any sensitive goods mentioned in the Nuclear Suppliers Group Trigger List. By the autumn of 2013, the Additional Protocol had become legally effective for more than 130 countries, while twenty others had announced their willingness to accede.

Two exemptions should be noted. First, whereas the non-nuclear-weapon member states of the NPT must declare all their nuclear facilities and materials to the IAEA and be open to inspections, the arrangement is voluntary for nuclear-weapon states, i.e. they only disclose facilities and materials they choose to place under the IAEA monitoring regime. Second, three IAEA members, India, Pakistan and Israel, that are not party to the NPT, claim this voluntary arrangement for themselves.

Countries that established the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) in 1957 and those who have since joined EURATOM as it enlarged are subject to a separate control mechanism for monitoring nuclear materials and facilities. To reconcile the two systems, there is an agreement between the IAEA, EURATOM and the non-nuclear members of EURATOM to the effect that the supervision measures under EURATOM are deemed to replace those of the IAEA and satisfy the IAEA safeguard requirements. This is possible because the NPT requires its non-nuclear-weapon members to conclude a safeguard agreement individually “or together with other States”. EURATOM thus constitutes a recognized regional control regime in which its members check on each other.

The Additional Protocol is particularly important in situations where a country is suspected of failing to meet obligations under the NPT or undermining the control regime, as occurred in the case of Iran after 2003. The IAEA has thus assumed a key role in the nuclear dimension of disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation.

Although the monitoring measures taken by the IAEA have frequently been criticized for being expensive, time-consuming and inadequate, they are clearly more effective than their critics claim. It was IAEA inspectors who discovered the covert nuclear programme in Iraq in the 1990s and later, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the IAEA was proved right in concluding that the programme had not been recommenced.

The IAEA does, however, face a dilemma. On the one hand, the agency is supposed to promote and facilitate the peaceful use of nuclear technology and maximize safety and security in this field. On the other hand, it is supposed to prevent any military uses. But the civil and military uses of nuclear technology have always been closely intertwined, making agency’s work look like mission impossible.

Sources and further information

IAEO at work 2013 Edition

BICC 11/2013

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