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Briefing on IAEA

On 25 March, Ms Tracy C. Brown, Liaison/Public Information Officer in the IAEA Office at the United Nations in New York, briefed the group on the work of the Agency.

Ms Brown commenced the discussion with an account of some of the historical events leading up to the formation of the International Atomic Engergy Agency. She then described its main organs and outlined its major activities. Thereafter, she opened the floor to questions from the audience.

She noted that it was only after the world witnessed the horrific devastation caused by the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War that efforts were made to create an international authority to develop the peaceful uses of atomic energy. One such effort was proposed by U.S. President Eisenhower, in his famous ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech before the eighth session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1953.

The idea came to fruition, and the IAEA became a reality in 1957 with the unanimous approval of its founding document, the Statute, by 81 nations. Since then, membership has swelled to 151 Member States. Per its Statute, its mandate is to promote the peaceful applications of atomic energy for the benefit of humanity, while simultaneously guarding against the spread of its use for military purposes. She said the IAEA was an autonomous intergovernmental, science and technology based organisation in the United Nations family, and served as the global focal point for co-operation in the nuclear area. It reported annually to the General Assembly and on an ad hoc basis to the United Nations Security Council in instances where international peace and security were threatened.

Structurally, the IAEA consisted of two main policy making bodies, the General Conference and the Board of Governors, and a Secretariat.

The General Conference consisted of all Members States and convened once a year in September. It approved the programme and budget, the annual report, elected the 35 members of the Board of Governors to serve two year terms, and decided on other matters brought before it by the Board of Governors, the Director General, or Member States.

The 35 member Board of Governors met five times per year and was responsible for making most of the major policy decisions of the organisation. It made recommendations to the General Conference on the accounts, programme and budget, and considered applications for membership. It also approved safeguards agreements and the publication of safety standards, and had the responsibility for appointing the Director General with the approval of the General Conference.

For the most part, decisions were made by consensus; however, sometimes voting was required on very contentious issues.

The Secretariat consisted of the Director General (the head of the organisation) and staff. The Director General oversaw the day-to-day activities of the secretariat composed of over 2,300 multi-disciplinary professional and support staff from more than 90 countries, headquartered in Vienna, Austria. The current Director General, Ambassador Yukiya Amano of Japan began his four-year term of office on 1 December 2009.

Ms Brown explained that over time, the work of IAEA has evolved into three main areas or pillars as they are called in the Agency. They are nuclear technology, nuclear safety and security, and nuclear verification.

With regard to the first pillar, the Agency assisted States in planning for and using nuclear science for a variety of peaceful purposes, including the generation of electricity, the improvement of human health and agricultural and animal production, and in improving land and water management, among others. These activities also aided in efforts to achieve a number of the Millennium Development Goals. The technical co-operation programme of the Agency aimed to facilitate the transfer of nuclear knowledge and technology in a sustainable manner. The bulk of assistance was provided in the form of co-operative projects (in-country and/or regional) to over 80 primarily developing Member States, and included components of experts, training and/or equipment. The IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation with the help of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications administered the programme.

With regard to the second pillar, Ms Brown was careful to note that the IAEA was not an international regulatory body with enforcement powers. She said the international community had made a determination that nuclear safety and security were national responsibilities. In spite of this, the efforts of the Agency in these areas were directed toward the development of agreed international norms or guidance to achieve and maintain high levels of nuclear safety and security practices aimed at protecting human health and the environment from ionising radiation. Some examples of agreed norms included (list not exclusive): the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident; the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency; the Convention on Nuclear Safety; the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.

With regard to the third pillar, Ms Brown noted that the IAEA implements a system of safeguards agreements aimed at preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons. She described safeguards as a set of internationally approved legal and technical measures used by the Agency to enable it to independently verify the non-diversion of peaceful nuclear material to non peaceful purposes. She said the process of verification was supposed to provide credible assurance and build confidence among the international community about the peaceful nature of a particular State’s nuclear programme (including its nuclear material, activities and facilities). This in turn, was supposed to help ally security concerns among States with respect to the development of nuclear weapons.

Most, but not all, safeguards agreements in force today were ‘comprehensive safeguards agreements’ with States that have committed themselves not to possess nuclear weapons and submitted their nuclear programmes to the scrutiny of IAEA inspectors pursuant to their adherence to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), for which the IAEA was the verification authority.

IAEA verification was further strengthened with the State’s conclusion of an ‘Additional Protocol’ agreement, supplemental to the comprehensive safeguards agreement. It broadened the Agency’s existing inspection authority by granting more information and greater access and use of new verification techniques.

Ms Brown reminded the group that not all States adhered to the NPT, and thus those States (India, Israel, and Pakistan) neither had, nor were subject to the provisions of a comprehensive safeguards agreement. She said the IAEA had a different, less restrictive type of safeguards agreement with those States.

Upon completion of her presentation, Ms Brown addressed questions from the audience. One student asked about her views on the impact of North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT on the agreement itself. In response, she noted that the failure of the international community to react in concert on North Korea’s decision was viewed by many as weakening the treaty. But, she reminded the group that reluctance to take action, such as to amend the Treaty, as some had proposed, would open the entire text to scrutiny, something most States wanted to avoid. States would have to find a balanced approach, but she was not optimistic. She noted the matter would likely be discussed during the NPT Review Conference in May.

Another student inquired about the specific work of her office. She noted that the IAEA New York office interacted with New York-based officials from the UN Secretariat, other international organisations, and permanent missions. It responded to inquiries and reported to IAEA headquarters on matters concerning the work of the Agency. She said the topics addressed ranged from international security, to nuclear energy and sustainable development, to the UN common system of shared practices concerning administrative and financial issues, including gender concerns.

Finally, she gave students the opportunity to talk one on one and shared information on working opportunities in the IAEA.

Till Hartmann