International Atomic Energy Agency

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's focus on the fallout of nuclear "spin."

Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to inhibit its use for military purposes. The IAEA's stated mission is to encourage the development of the peaceful application of nuclear technology, provide international safeguards against its misuse, and facilitate the application of safety measures in its use. IAEA expanded its nuclear safety efforts in response to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986.

In 2003, the IAEA established its Chernobyl Forum, to "promote facts about health and environmental effects" of the 1986 nuclear disaster. The Forum will report to the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. [1] But past IAEA studies and statements about Chernobyl have been widely criticized by some scientists, environmental groups and anti-nuclear activists. One European nuclear engineer who studied Chernobyl dismissed early IAEA damage assessments, warning in 1986 that: "the IAEA is in the business of promoting nuclear energy, not discouraging it. However, for 10 years the agency has attempted to downplay the consequences of the accident. In 1987, for example, well before information began to filter out of the Soviet Union on the true extent of the accident, an IAEA report reassuringly noted: '... if anything, there will be a modification downward of early calculations of risks and predictions of health consequences.'"[2]

Leadership: Director General

The IAEA's Mission and Mandate

Spreading Peaceful Atoms or Proliferating Weapons?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up in 1957 as the world´s "Atoms for Peace" organization within the United Nations. Its job is to: "… accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world..” But, at the same time it has to ensure that any assistance provided “…is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose." [3]

Atoms for Peace?

In his famous December 1953 speech to the UN, President Dwight Eisenhower proposed, as part of his “Atoms for Peace” programme, the creation of a new International Atomic Energy Agency to take custody of nuclear material, ensure its safe keeping, and use it for peaceful purposes. Negotiations ended in 1956 with the approval of the IAEA Statute, and the IAEA was established as an intergovernmental organisation affiliated with the UN in 1957. Then, in 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was ratified. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), prohibits the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states – the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China – from transferring nuclear weapons or associated technology to non-nuclear states, yet obligates them to provide technologies for civilian nuclear activities. In return the non-nuclear states agree not to seek weapons and to accept ‘safeguards’ on their civilian nuclear materials.

Promoting Proliferation

Even before the ink was dry on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in l968, officials in the U.S. State Policy Planning staff had privately warned their superiors that non-weapons member states to the treaty could come within weeks of acquiring a nuclear arsenal by amassing nuclear weapons-useable fuels claiming that these were intended for peaceful purposes. But this advice was quietly ignored. [4] In fact there have been three major recent challenges to the IAEA system. Iraq, Iran and North Korea have all been found to be in breach of their agreements with IAEA when each of them was a party to the NPT. The IAEA safeguards system failed to detect their clandestine and illegal nuclear activities. It seems that the system only works effectively when countries operate according to the rule of law and have no intention of violating their obligations. [5]

India was perhaps the first nation to realize exactly what kind of a door the Atoms for Peace initiative was opening. Although not a signatory to the NPT, in 1955 Canada built India a research reactor, and the United States supplied heavy water, after it promised to keep its atomic activities peaceful. Thanks to these Atoms for Peace contributions, India was able to derive approximately 600 pounds of plutonium, some of which it used in a 1974 nuclear test. [6] According to Alice Slater - a founder of Abolition 2000, a global network working for a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons: “the IAEA has been the world's most effective agent for increasing the spread of nuclear weapons around the planet with its industry-dominated promotion of so-called "peaceful" nuclear technology”. [7]

Weapons' State in Control

The IAEA Secretariat has its headquarters in Vienna, and a team of 2200 staff from more than 90 countries. The Agency is led by Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and six Deputy Directors General who head the major departments.

IAEA programmes and budgets are set through decisions of its policymaking bodies - the Board of Governors, composed of 35 Member States elected by the General Conference of all Member States. All five of the declared nuclear weapon states, as well as India and Pakistan, are members of the Board of Governors for 2006-7. [8] Reports on IAEA activities are submitted annually to the UN General Assembly and, when appropriate, to the Security Council regarding non-compliance by States with their safeguards obligations as well as on matters relating to international peace and security.

IAEA financial resources include the regular budget and voluntary contributions. The Regular Budget for 2006 amounts to 274 million euros. The target for voluntary contributions is $77.5 million.

Nuclear Power's Biggest Cheer-leader

The WNA is lobbying for a massive increase in nuclear generation: some 1,000GW of nuclear capacity by 2030. This is not surprising since the the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists calls the IAEA “nuclear power's biggest cheerleader”. The journal says the IAEA has always been an atomic optimist - in a 1974 analysis, for example, it predicted that Uganda might need three nuclear power plants, and Liberia, two. [9] The IAEA is closely aligned with the nuclear industry. IAEA Director General from 1981 until 1997, Dr Hans Blix, is a Chairman of the Council of Advisors to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). And the Director General of WNA, John Ritch, is the former US Ambassador to the IAEA.

The UN's Nuclear Watchdog?

The IAEA is frequently described in the media as the United Nation’s Nuclear Watchdog. [10] A watchdog, according to Chambers Dictionary is an “organisation closely monitoring governmental or commercial operations to guard against inefficiency and illegality”.

This implies the Agency is charged simply with preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But this is not the Agency’s sole role - it also promotes nuclear technologies – an objective that would appear to be in conflict with its watchdog role - because the promotion of nuclear energy can cause the spread of nuclear weapons.

Critics say, because the two objectives of the IAEA contradict each other, the Agency is in urgent need of a radical reform, and recent developments underline this. The activities of the Khan network, for example, illustrates how, so-called, peaceful nuclear technology can be used for military purposes. Abdul Qaadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s bomb, was able to build a global nuclear information network and business, which had access to supposedly secret uranium enrichment technology. Using a mixture of legal and illegal transactions involving businesses all over the world, ultracentrifuge enrichment technology was exported to Libya, North Korea and Iran. [11]

A Misguided Response to Climate Change And Nuclear Proliferation

Nuclear Won't Slow Global Warming

At the IAEA General Conference in September 2000, a resolution was adopted which requested the IAEA to assist countries to use nuclear power “in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions”. The nuclear industry, the G8 and the IAEA all advocate the global expansion of the nuclear industry to combat climate change. However the industry's critics argue that, because of the proliferation risks, such a strategy would simply be leaping out of the frying pan into the fire.

In 2004 the IAEA produced a report, which concluded that “even under the most favourable circumstances," nuclear power wouldn't slow global warming. It said, "the world would have to be so prosperous to afford" a significant increase in nuclear plants that greenhouse gas emissions "from fossil fuels would have grown even faster." [12]

Yet the Agency continues to advocate nuclear power as part of the solution to climate change and forecast that the use of nuclear energy will increase rapidly in the coming years. It predicted that nuclear power’s contribution to electricity supplies would rise from one-sixth in 2004 to a quarter in 2030. The organisation also called for financial penalties to be placed on carbon emissions. [13]

In 2006, total global nuclear capacity was 396GW(e). At a fringe meeting at the Nairobi Climate Conference in November 2006, Alan McDonald, IAEA Programme Liaison Officer gave two scenarios for growth in nuclear capacity. In the low growth scenario capacity would reach 423 GW(e) by 2020 and then remain effectively level, at least until 2030. In the high projection, global nuclear capacity goes up to 679 GW(e) in 2030. [14]

Inalienable Right

At the July 2006 G8 summit in St Petersburg one solution to the twin dilemmas of tackling climate change and preventing nuclear proliferation was proposed. The widespread sale of nuclear reactors to developing countries was envisaged, but the more sensitive nuclear facilities that can be easily diverted for making bombs would be kept within the G8. Other countries would not be allowed to enrich uranium fuel, or to reprocess spent fuel to extract plutonium. They would have to buy fuel enrichment and reprocessing services from G8 countries. [15]

But, as El Baradei himself points out, there is nothing in the current non-proliferation regime (the IAEA Statute and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) to stop a non-nuclear-weapon state obtaining uranium enrichment or reprocessing technology – both of which could give access to weapons-useable nuclear material – provided they promise to use them for peaceful purposes. Any such country could later renege on its non-proliferation commitments. This means the Agency is faced with an impossible dilemma: should it support the 'inalienable right' of countries like India and Iran to dual-use nuclear facilities or should it accept criteria that holds that plutonium separation and uranium enrichment is acceptable for Japan and western countries but not for others? [16]

El Baradei has also suggested the establishment of multinational proliferation-sensitive fuel cycle facilities. [17] He says this would lower the risk of these materials being diverted to weapons. A parallel step would be to create a mechanism to ensure a reliable supply of reactor fuel to bona fide users, including a fuel bank under control of the IAEA.

But critics suggest that both the IAEA and G8 proposals would formalise the current unfair and unequal system by creating a de facto oligopoly of nuclear suppliers. There is no basis, other than a "do as I say, not as I do" approach, for the West to say to others - the Iranians, for example - that they cannot build the same nuclear facilities. Any attempt to do that would be likely to give rise to strong opposition and resentment from those countries not allowed nuclear fuel cycle facilities. It would be seen as nothing more than hypocrisy, and racism. [18]

Multilateral, centralized nuclear facilities would also result in an increase in the number of radioactive waste and nuclear fuel transports, as well as an increased trade in plutonium, exposing coastal states to increased risks, to which they have strongly objected in the recent past. [19]

“Proliferation Resistant” Reactors – a Misconception

Even if the IAEA were successful in restricting the spread of sensitive nuclear facilities, a growth in the number of new reactors around the globe could still cause proliferation problems. Light Water Reactors, like the ones requested by North Korea in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons programme, can be efficient producers of plutonium, which could be separated from spent fuel in a plant simple to design and build which could be in operation in four to six months. It does not need to be a large industrial scale facility like Sellafield or La Hague. [20] The IAEA does not have complete real-time camera monitoring of spent fuel storage areas in countries where it is monitoring. There is, therefore, a danger that IAEA safeguards create the illusion that any diversion of material from peaceful to military uses would be detected in time, when it is quite possible that it wouldn’t be.

Restricting the number of states operating sensitive facilities, at the same time as supplying countries with nuclear materials, provided they promise to use them for peaceful purposes, could be laying the foundations for more proliferation. Increased trade in plutonium and enriched uranium would increase the security risks associated with nuclear energy. The IAEA’s proposed Multilateral Nuclear Approaches (MNA) could, therefore, rather than solve some of the key problems of nuclear power, actually increase nuclear proliferation as well as radioactive contamination of the environment. [21]

Nuclear Power Not a "Fix All"

Speaking at the Nairobi climate summit in November 2006, IAEA´s Alan McDonald argued that nuclear power was not a "fix all" but it could help to reduce the risk of climate change.

Mr. McDonald argued that nuclear power was "on par" with solar and wind energy when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. The full nuclear power chain, from resource extraction to waste disposal, emits 1-6 grams of carbon per kilowatt-hour – about the same as wind and solar power and well below coal, oil and natural gas, he contended. [22]

Nuclear Safety

The Fox In Charge Of The Chicken Coop

The IAEA also promotes nuclear safety and security. However it cannot impose legally binding standards on member-states. It has voluntary Codes of Practice for nuclear power plants. The Convention on Nuclear Safety, which entered into force in October 1996, aims to legally commit participating States to maintain a high level of safety by setting international benchmarks. But the convention does not set out mandatory safety standards for reactors nor does it contain provisions for sanctions in the event of a party failing to meet its obligations. Convention Parties are obliged to submit reports on implementation for "peer review" at meetings of the Parties. [23]

The contradiction at the heart of the Agency’s mission – to promote the desirability and availability of nuclear technology at the same time as presenting itself as an international ‘regulator’ or ‘watchdog’ over nuclear safety makes it difficult to have confidence in them.

An alternative view, presented by Greenpeace in 2005, is that all operational reactors have very serious inherent safety flaws which cannot be eliminated by safety upgrading. New reactor designs - heralded as fundamentally safe - have their own specific safety problems, and extending the lifetime of existing reactors leads to the degradation of critical components and the increased risk of severe incidents. Nor can reactors be sufficiently protected against a terrorist threat. [24]

Chernobyl Spin to Boost Nuclear Fortunes

During a two-day conference in Vienna, in September 2005, the IAEA presented a report claiming that ultimately some 4,000 deaths can be expected as a result of the world's worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986. [25] The IAEA digest report, "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," was based on a three-volume, 600-page report which incorporated the work of hundreds of scientists, economists and health experts, assessing the 20-year impact of the largest nuclear accident in history. The conclusions of the IAEA digest were not substantiated by this report. Indeed they were contradicted by them.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups accused the Agency of deliberately playing down the death toll in order to portray nuclear energy itself as an acceptable future energy source. [26]

Huge Underestimate

Zhanat Carr, a radiation scientist with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, said an extra 5000 deaths were omitted from an IAEA/WHO report because it was a "political communication tool". Elizabeth Cardis, a radiation specialist from the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, said that 30,000 to 60,000 cancer deaths is "the right order of magnitude". [27] IARC predicted the number of cancer deaths at between 6,700 and 38,000, probably around 16,000. This was four times the prediction made by the IAEA/WHO Chernobyl Forum. [28]

In contrast, a report by two UK radiation scientists for the European Green Party [29] estimated that Chernobyl could kill up to 60,000 people. And a Greenpeace report, with input from 52 scientists from around the world, estimated that over 250,000 cancers and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers will be caused by the accident. [30]

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl, told the BBC that its report only looked at the most affected areas of the three most affected countries, whereas the Greenpeace report looked at the whole of Europe. [31] This was not made immediately obvious in the IAEA Press Release, [32] and it was certainly not obvious from the press coverage. Headlines such as “Chernobyl death toll much lower than predicted” gave a highly misleading impression of the report’s conclusions. [33][34][35][36]

Towards a new UN Sustainable Energy Agency

Critics suggest that we cannot hope to prevent proliferation by stopping some countries from acquiring sensitive nuclear technology whilst allowing others to have it. History has taught us that if countries cannot obtain nuclear technology through legal means, they will acquire it illegally if they have the political will, determination and enough money to pay for it. If the international community is serious about tackling nuclear proliferation there is an urgent need to implement a comprehensive fissile material treaty that bans the production and possession of enriched uranium and plutonium.

Environment and non-proliferation groups argue that the United Nations needs a body which can lead the way in tackling the twin threats of climate change and nuclear proliferation by stating clearly that we need to phase out nuclear power and replace it with cheaper, safer, less polluting and sustainable ways to meet our energy needs which promote world peace rather than threatening it. [37]

Contact details

P.O. Box 100
Wagramer Strasse 5
A-1400 Vienna, Austria
Tel: (+431) 2600-0
Email: Official.Mail AT



  1. International Atomic Energy Agency, "Chernobyl: Clarifying Consequences"
  3. IAEA Statute, Article II.
  4. Victor Gilinsky, Marvin Miller, and Harmon Hubbard, A Fresh Examination of the Proliferation Dangers of Light Water Reactors, 22 October 2004, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, Washington.
  5. Paul Leventhal, IAEA Safeguards Shortcomings: A Critique, Nuclear Control Institute, Washington, DC., 12 September 1994.
  6. Catherine Auer, “Atoms for What?”, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November/December 2003.
  7. Alice Slater, A Nobel Prize for Chernobyl?, Counterpunch, 8 October 2005.
  8. IAEA Board of Governors, IAEA website.
  9. Catherine Auer, “Atoms for What?”, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November/December 2003.
  10. IAEA Profile, BBC News, 2 February 2006.
  11. Joop Boer, Henk van der Keur, Karel Koster, and Frank Slijper, A.Q. Khan, Urenco and the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Technology: The Symbiotic Relation Between Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Weapons, Greenpeace International, May 2004.
  12. Geoffrey Lean, Nuclear Power Can’t Stop Climate Change”, Independent, 27 June 2004.
  13. Richard Black, UN Predicts Rapid Nuclear Growth, BBC News, 26 June 2004.
  14. Figures from McDonald's presentation in Nairobi, November 2006. He gave slightly lower number in a paper published in June 2006. See Yuri Sokolov and Alan McDonald, Nuclear Power: Status and Trends, Nuclear Energy, 2006.
  15. Rob Edwards, Revealed G8 Plan for Global Nuclear Expansion, Sunday Herald, 9 July 2006.
  16. Mohamed ElBaradei, “Towards a Safer World,” Economist, 18 October 2003.
  17. Mohamed ElBaradei, Rethinking Nuclear Safeguards, Washington Post, 14 June 2006.
  18. Jan van de Putte, Shaun Burnie and Duncan Currie, The Real Face of the IAEA’s Multilateral Approaches: The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon Material & Environmental Contamination, Greenpeace International, 26 September 2005
  19. For example, the Irish Government voiced objections to a MOX shipment between Barrow-in-Furness (England) and Cherbourg (France) during November 2006. See Roche: UK Nuclear Shipments will not Enter Irish Waters, Irish Examiner, 14 November 2006.
  20. Shaun Burnie and Tom Clements, The End of KEDO: Why Supplying a Nuclear Reactor to North Korea would have Increased Proliferation Risks in East Asia, Greenpeace International, May 2006.
  21. Jan Van de Putte, Shaun Burnie and Duncan Currie, The Real Face of the IAEA’s Multilateral Approaches: The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon Material & Environmental Contamination, Greenpeace International, 26 September 2005
  22. IAEA Website, World Climate Change Conference Hears Nuclear Side, 15 November 2006.
  23. Convention on Nuclear Safety, IAEA website.
  24. Helmut Hirsch, Oda Becker, Mycle Schneider and Anthony Froggatt, Nuclear Reactor Hazards: Ongoing Hazards of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century, Greenpeace International, April 2005.
  25. IAEA Press Release, Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident, 5 September 2005
  26. Greenpeace International Press Release, IAEA Deliberately Downplays Chernobyl Death Toll to Pave Way for Nuclear Renaissance, 7 September 2005
  27. Rob Edwards, How Many More Lives Will Chernobyl Claim?, New Scientist, 6 April 2006
  28. International Agency for Research on Cancer Press Release, The Cancer Burden from Chernobyl In Europe, 20 April 2006
  29. European Greens Press Release, Chernobyl Study: Greens Launch New Study of Malignant Legacy of Chernobyl, 6 April 2006
  30. David Santillo et al., The Chernobyl Catastrophe Consequences on Human Health, Greenpeace International, April 2006.
  31. Greenpeace Rejects Chernobyl Toll, BBC News, 18 April 2006
  32. IAEA Press Release, Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident, 5 September 2005
  33. Chernobyl Likely to Kill 4,000, BBC News, 5 September 2005.
  34. Chernobyl Death Toll Much Lower than Predicted: UN, The Scotsman, 6 September 2005.
  35. Chernobyl Less Danger than Feared, Financial Times, 6 September 2005.
  36. Chernobyl Death Toll Under 50, The Guardian, 6 September 2005
  37. See for example Alice Slater, “Time to Establish an International Sustainable Energy Fund, International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation Bulletin, No. 24 Energy & Security.


External links