The first briefing on our second day was on the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) given by Ms Tracy C. Brown, Public Information/Liaison Officer in the IAEA Office at the United Nations in New York. After describing the work of her office, she gave a brief overview of the history, structure and major programmes of the organization and then invited questions.
The work of the Liaison Office is essentially twofold. On the one hand, it has a political focus in terms of its interaction with Vienna staff at IAEA headquarters and with New York-based officials in the UN Secretariat, other international organizations, and permanent missions. On the other hand, it performs important public information tasks like responding to inquiries and conducting briefings. In both instances, the topics addressed range from international security to nuclear energy and sustainable development to the UN common system of shared administrative practices.
She noted that after the horrific events of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, various proposals were circulated with the aim of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology by promoting the peaceful uses of the science. One such proposal was unveiled before the international community in 1953 by US President Eisenhower in his ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech before the eighth session of the UN General Assembly. Therein he proposed the creation of an international authority to control and develop the use of atomic energy. With the support of other states, the effort led to the creation of the IAEA in 1957 as an autonomous intergovernmental science and technology based organisation in the UN family that serves as the global focal point for nuclear cooperation. Its mandate is to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy while simultaneously guarding against the spread of its use for military purposes.
The Agency reports annually to the General Assembly and to the Security Council on an ad hoc basis in instances where international peace and security are threatened, for example in cases of non-compliance of states with their IAEA safeguards obligations.
Ms Brown went on to explain the organisational structure of the IAEA noting that the General Conference, consisting of all 146 member states meets once a year in Vienna to decide on the programme and budget of the Agency as well as other items brought to its attention by the Board of Governors, the Director General, or Member States. She said the 35-member Board of Governors meets five times per year, also in Vienna, to decide on major policy issues, including the approval of nuclear safeguards agreements with member states, and the appointment of the Director General; the latter decision requiring the approval of the General Conference. Ms Brown pointed out that the current head of the organization, Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei will conclude his third and final four-year term of office at the end of 2009, and that selection of his replacement is a hot topic especially considering – to date – none of the candidates has garnered the necessary two-thirds support of the Board.
Over time she said the mandate of the Agency has come to rest on three pillars – nuclear technology, nuclear safety and security, and nuclear verification. Regarding the first pillar, the Agency assists member states in the achievement of their national development priorities in numerous fields where nuclear techniques offer advantages over others, or where nuclear techniques can usefully supplement conventional means. The applications of peaceful nuclear technologies range from the well-known examples of using nuclear power to generate electricity and radioactive sources to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, to lesser known applications in the agricultural field such as soil science, plant breeding, and land and water management just to name a few. She also mentioned the environmentally friendly nuclear application of the sterile insect technique (SIT) used in controlling insect pests and resulting in less dependence on fewer pesticides.
With regard to the second pillar, nuclear safety and security, Ms Brown emphasized the effect on the Agency of the determination by the international community to designate nuclear safety and security as national responsibilities. As a result, IAEA assistance in this area is provided upon invitation only. Needless to say, in the safety area, the Agency is at the centre of international efforts to promote the highest standards of safety culture among organizations and individuals where safety is considered an overriding priority. So too is the Agency at the forefront of encouraging States adherence to international conventions and safety standards. Some examples being the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which is the world’s first international legal instrument to directly address nuclear power plant safety. Therein, peer review, as opposed to coercion, is the key to the Convention’s aim of achieving and maintaining a high level of nuclear safety worldwide. Two other examples given were the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident and the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency. All three conventions evolved in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
In the area of nuclear security, post 11 September 2001, the Agency has periodically updated and reassessed its comprehensive review of its efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism. The focus is in helping States to prevent, detect, and respond to terrorist and other malicious acts (such as illegal possession, use, transfer, and trafficking) involving nuclear and radioactive material, and to protect nuclear installations and transport against sabotage.
Concerning the third pillar, nuclear verification, also known as the IAEA safeguards system, Ms Brown explained that safeguards consists of a set of internationally approved legal and technical measures aimed at verifying that states are in compliance with their non-proliferation commitments, namely their promise to maintain exclusively peaceful nuclear programmes, and to provide an early-warning to the international community if they are not. Although not perfect, nuclear verification attempts to provide a measure of assurance and/or to build confidence among the international community about the status of a particular state’s nuclear programme.
She said the IAEA does not have powers to impose its inspections on any state. The UN Security Council is the sole international body with enforcement powers under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Thus a precondition for the implementation of safeguards is the conclusion of a formal, legally binding agreement by the state with the IAEA.
She said that most but not all safeguards agreements in force today derive mainly from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which has built into it a dichotomy between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. In broad terms, the NPT is an agreement by the latter to forego nuclear weapons and accept the obligation to put all of their peaceful nuclear material, facilities, and activities under the international safeguards of the Agency in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technology. In turn, the nuclear weapon states agree to pursue nuclear disarmament, albeit without a timetable.
In accepting IAEA safeguards, non-nuclear weapon states promise not to acquire nuclear weapons and to accept the obligation to conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA declaring all of their peaceful nuclear activities. For its part, under the agreement, the IAEA conducts on-site inspections aimed at verifying the correctness and completeness of states’ declarations. The Agency analyzes all relevant information obtained through its confidential verification work and from other sources, including the media, intelligence, and satellite imagery, to ensure consistency with states’ declarations and then draws a conclusion based on its findings. When results agree with a State’s declarations, the results provide additional assurance that no misuse has occurred. When a possible discrepancy is found, actions are taken to confirm the Agency’s finding, first by re-checking results to ensure against contamination, interference or mistakes. Upon confirmation of questionable findings, the State in question is asked to provide an explanation. If there is an inadequate response or the matter is left unresolved it can reach the attention of the Security Council.
The discovery of the clandestine nuclear programmes of Iraq and the DPRK in the 1990s demonstrated the limitations of traditional safeguards which until then had focused on the detection of the diversion of declared nuclear material. These examples were fundamental to efforts to improve the safeguards system to strengthen its ability to provide further assurance against the diversion and detection of undeclared nuclear material and activities. Such efforts led to the development of the Additional Protocol (AP) a supplemental model agreement which broadened the Agency's existing inspection authority under comprehensive safeguards. The AP calls for more transparency, access to more information and use of new verification techniques. The AP with a CSA have become the new standard of international nuclear verification that is only effective when both agreements have entered into force and are being implemented, which means that all states must sign and ratify them to be effective.
Ms Brown acknowledged that the current nuclear verification system is far from perfect, but is the best the globe has for now, as it enhances international security by providing some measure of assurance and confidence-building among the international community with regard to non-proliferation. She then asked rhetorically to imagine the difficulty and cost if such a system were carried out bilaterally or not at all?
To illustrate nuclear verification in practice, she used the example of Iran, prefacing the discussion noting that Iran’s right to acquire peaceful nuclear technology is unquestioned, but not unconditional. She said that despite Iran’s promise to maintain an exclusively peaceful nuclear programme pursuant to its adherence to the NPT and its CSA with the IAEA, Iran’s failure to disclose its uranium enrichment activities to the IAEA as required under international law resulted in a breach of trust and loss of confidence among the international community about the programme's exclusively peaceful nature. Although uranium enrichment in and of itself is not a violation of international law she said, the failure of a state to disclose its engagement in such activity can result in a breach because of the dual–use nature of the technology for both peaceful and military ends. In addition she said, Iran has not been forthcoming with information to help the Agency resolve remaining issues concerning a possible military dimension to its nuclear programme. The Agency therefore has not yet drawn a final conclusion on the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme. For its part, the UN Security Council has passed a number of resolutions demanding that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activities and imposing rather mild economic sanctions in an attempt to compel it to do so. Ultimately, she said, it is the desire of the Agency that the matter be resolved peacefully.
She then opened the floor to questions. When asked if a US security guarantee would alter Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon, Ms Brown was not optimistic. She reminded the group that the US has not been the most unbiased observer on this issue. Further, she noted Iran’s difficult position, particularly the fact that it is essentially surrounded by nuclear weapon capable states - India, Israel, Pakistan, and US troops occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. Such factors bear heavily on a state’s perception of its own security. To date, all offers and/or proposals (from EU and US for that matter), would have required Iran to abandon all processing of domestically mined uranium, including enrichment, and to import all fuel for its nuclear power reactors – all conditions Iran views as unacceptable. Alternatively, the EU/US have ignored Iran’s counter-proposal to implement an international uranium enrichment programme on Iranian territory.
With regard to a question on the future of nuclear disarmament, Ms Brown was hopeful. She said that the recent pronouncements of notable statesmen calling for the complete renunciation of nuclear weapons are promising, but must be followed with action. When asked if the Agency had any measures to enforce nuclear disarmament, she said no, that it is completely up to the willingness of the ‘sovereign’ nuclear weapon states to take steps in this direction. As long as there are ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology will always be a challenge.
In reply to a question concerning proposals to make withdrawal from the NPT more difficult, for example, to prevent cases like North Korea, Ms Brown was not optimistic, as it would open up the entire treaty for review she said. Despite this, there are some good proposals to strengthen the NPT overall, and the same would be discussed at the third meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 NPT Review Conference to be held in May.
Finally, Ms Brown concluded discussions by graciously offering information on internship opportunities with the IAEA, noting that the Agency and member states considered the preservation of nuclear knowledge to be a priority as fewer young people pursued nuclear science and related careers, and as more experts retired.
Florian Lewerenz and Tracy C. Brown