IAEA: what for?

1 November 2012

Over the last few years, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and others, have examined what its role should be. After Fukushima, its identity and role has also been questioned. Analyst Trevor Findlay concludes that the organisation missed an opportunity post-Fukushima to push for greater nuclear safetyd.

I believe that there will probably always be a need for an international political body for nuclear power; and it seems that the space where nuclear power meets politics is inhabited by the issue of nonproliferation.

This is where much of the IAEA’s resources seem to have been directed in the past few years, and it is also where the organisation can demonstrate successes. More than 100 countries have brought the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty into force, for example. There is also the 1980s-vintage Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, which was successfully implemented (although a 2005 amendment to increase its powers of nuclear material protection has not yet been).

The IAEA’s brand of slow, consensus-building diplomacy creates a sense of shared values and identity, in so doing upholding the ideals of its parent organisation the United Nations. It is through this work that the IAEA has established a general international consensus, for example, that nuclear weapons technology should not spread beyond those who already have it. I know that this is not news. And I know that there are some uncomfortable exceptions to this rule (India, Israel; for different reasons). But only a diplomatic body like the IAEA could have created such an agreement, which may well have saved us from a nuclear escalation at some point in the past (or will do in the future).

Of course, today’s IAEA does lots of other things, including helping the development of new-nuclear countries, technical standards and standardisation projects, peer-review missions, emergency response, among others.

How can it manage to do all of these things well? Take for example its integrated regulatory review service. Two wide-ranging investigations set up by the Japanese government blamed the insufficient safeguarding of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors on major problems with Japanese nuclear industry regulation. But the IAEA’s own peer review of Japan from 2007 was quite positive. In a 2012 Greenpeace report, antinuclear advocate Arnie Gunderson claims that the IAEA put politics ahead of radiation protection when it followed the Japanese government’s line rather than its own measurements in Iitate village, near Fukushima.

Whatever actually happened, the IAEA does face a conflict of interest between the political negotiations required to achieve consensus on conventions, on one hand, and the independent critical eye required for technical work on the other. That makes it vulnerable to claims of political interference.

The only solution is a radical one. As valuable as the IAEA’s technical and operational work may be, I think the IAEA should do what it does best—politics, diplomacy and international development—and leave the rest to other organisations with different mandates. (Indeed, Findlay’s report encourages nuclear regulators to establish an international body).

When the IAEA was founded 55 years ago this past July, it was (nearly) alone in pursuing its mission to ‘seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world’, as its charter stated. (Another contemporaneous international programme I know of was the US government’s Atoms for Peace initiative facilitating civil nuclear power programmes in foreign nations). Now, after many government-led nuclear programmes have become privatised and in some cases deregulated, and as national suppliers have become international vendors, the number of international organisations has mushroomed.

Along with this globalisation, the mission of many national and international organisations have come to overlap the original mission of the IAEA: governmental bodies, industry associations, technical support agencies, quangos, and other organisations. Why not hand over technical work to one or more of them??There are certainly enough to choose from.

This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

Author Info:

Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International.

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