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The International Atomic Energy Agency:  Fifty Years of International Science (and Other Things)

By Mark Goodman

The International Atomic Energy Agency has been much in the news of late, particularly for its nuclear verification activities in Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea. This newfound prominence earned the IAEA and its Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Now often described as the “UN nuclear watchdog,” the IAEA first came into the public eye fifteen years ago with its earlier investigation of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. But its broader missions, including nuclear science and technology and international development, are less well known.

The IAEA was the 1953 brainchild of President Eisenhower. The earliest efforts at international nuclear control had ended in failure.  The Acheson-Lilienthal Report and Baruch Plan of 1946 had called for full international control of all aspects of nuclear energy, but were mired immediately in Soviet opposition. In 1949, the first Soviet nuclear test dashed hopes for halting the spread of the nuclear genie.

Eisenhower’s vision, presented in his December 1953 Atoms for Peace speech to the UN General Assembly, was to take fissionable material from weapons programs and use it for peaceful nuclear energy. An international Atomic Energy Agency would receive materials and make them available under strict safeguards. It would, Eisenhower said, “encourage world-wide investigation into the most effective peace- time uses of fissionable material.”
This proposal led to a series of large international conferences in Geneva to discuss the science and politics of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. One result was the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an international treaty like the Charter of the United Nations. The IAEA was born when this treaty entered into force in July 1957 and is now approaching its fiftieth anniversary. The IAEA mission, according to its Statute, is to “seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.”

To fulfill this mission, the Statute gives the IAEA a broad mandate in the international scientific arena, including:
  • “To encourage and assist research on, and development and practical application of, atomic energy for peaceful uses throughout the world,”
  • "To foster the exchange of scientific and technical information on peaceful uses of atomic energy,” and 
  • “To encourage the exchange of training of scientists and experts in the field of peaceful uses of atomic energy.”
The benefits of nuclear energy have their roots in physics, and some of the IAEA's work remains close to these roots. The IAEA is one supporter–along with UNESCO and the Italian government–of the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. The mission of the ICTP is to promote theoretical physics research–particularly in the developing world.

Aside from the ICTP, however, the IAEA is not generally in the business of sponsoring physics research. Given its mission and its limited budget, the IAEA focuses its support for nuclear science on enhancing cooperation and information sharing “to increase Member State capabilities in the development and application of nuclear science as a tool for their economic development.”

In physics, the IAEA has coordinated projects on neutron sources –both research reactors and accelerators–aimed mainly at helping countries make the best use of those facilities both for research and for isotope production. The IAEA maintains an extensive database both of scientific literature (including atomic, nuclear and radiation physics, plasma physics and particle physics) and a wide variety of nuclear and atomic physics data, all available at no cost to IAEA member states and often to the general public. The IAEA also recently agreed to provide administrative support for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Like any international organization, the IAEA is a creature of its member states, the vast majority of whom are developing countries. A relatively small number of those countries are interested in direct uses of nuclear energy, either through nuclear power or through research facilities such as reactors, accelerators and tokamaks. But every member state can benefit from the application of nuclear techniques to the problems of economic and social development. This is why the IAEA has focused much of its effort on the development, refinement and application of those techniques.

The IAEA has chosen to focus on the use of nuclear techniques where they offer a comparative advantage in meeting the development needs of its member states: food and agriculture, medicine and health, water resources, and the marine and terrestrial environment. In medicine, for example, nuclear techniques are central to radiology, nuclear medicine and radiation therapy, as well as research using bio-chemicals tagged with radioisotopes. Skill in applying knowledge of the interaction and absorption of ionizing radiation with matter is essential for health physics, to protect patients and to ensure proper radiation doses.

Building on its programs in radiation therapy, the IAEA recently undertook a new cancer therapy initiative called PACT, which is both an acronym (for Program of Action on Cancer Therapy) and a description of how the IAEA operates–through partnerships with other organizations. The IAEA has expertise in some of the techniques necessary for diagnosing and treating cancer, but is far from having a comprehensive approach to the problem. 

PACT is a partnership with the World Health Organization, the International Union Against Cancer (representing over 200 organizations worldwide) and others.

The IAEA is also seeking the support of philanthropic and development organizations to meet this rapidly growing need. The roughly $150 million the IAEA has spent over the last 25 years to improve its member states’ capabilities in radiation therapy is but a drop in the bucket for a disease that kills over 7 million people a year. Over half of new cases are in the developing world.

In another example of the use of nuclear techniques for development, the IAEA was a pioneer in research, development and application of the sterile insect technique (SIT) for pest control. The SIT uses radiation to sterilize large numbers of male insects; when sterile males mate with fertile wild females, the result is a form of birth control.

As with other methods of insect control, the SIT tends to result in temporary and localized success, followed by re-infestation.  However, in one case, the IAEA was able to eradicate completely the tsetse fly from the island of Zanzibar. Tsetse flies carry sleeping sickness, a parasitic disease that affects both humans and particularly cattle. Controlling tsetse flies can lead to healthier, more productive cattle herds and significantly improve the welfare of subsistence herders. The IAEA is now working on a similar project in certain areas of Ethiopia where the tsetse fly is endemic, hoping that their relative isolation will lead to success similar to that in Zanzibar.

The IAEA has also applied the SIT to combat fruit flies in the Middle East and screwworm in the Caribbean, and has begun an effort to control malaria-bearing mosquitoes. As with PACT, IAEA activities in insect control depend on partnerships with other organizations, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and development organizations such as the African Development Bank. 

There is something of a role reversal in the area of nuclear verification, where the IAEA depends on the technical capabilities of its member states for the technical capability to carry out its responsibilities to apply “safeguards” (a combination of verification inspections and material accountancy) to nuclear material (mainly uranium and plutonium) in peaceful nuclear activities worldwide. Much of the equipment the IAEA uses to monitor nuclear facilities and measure the inventory and flow of nuclear material was developed by member states through Member State Support Programs (MSSPs). The United States has by far the largest and most diverse MSSP, and much of the IAEA's instrumentation was originally developed through the U.S. Support Program by the Department of Energy's National Laboratories, although other countries are playing an increasing role in developing and refining safeguards technology.

As it encounters new verification challenges, particularly the challenge of detecting undeclared nuclear activities and materials, the IAEA relies on MSSPs for the development of new techniques. One of the most successful of these has been the use of environmental sampling and analysis, often using highly sensitive techniques to analyze individual particles in swipe samples taken at declared or suspected nuclear facilities. This technique was instrumental in detecting North Korean cheating on its safeguards agreement in the early 1990s, and has been critical in investigating safeguards violations by Iran and Libya.

The IAEA is now looking ahead at other possible verification techniques, such as noble gas sampling, antineutrino monitoring and the use of hyperspectral commercial satellite imagery, and is seeking the help of MSSPs to evaluate their promise in meeting current and future challenges.

The IAEA is a diverse organization with many accomplishments, not just as a “nuclear watchdog” but also as an engine of international development. But as much as been accomplished over the past 50 years to advance President Eisenhower’s vision, much remains to be done to realize his vision of a world where fear of nuclear warfare has receded and nuclear energy is known primarily for its contributions to international peace, cooperation and human development.

Mark Goodman is a physicist in the State Department’s Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs, which is responsible for US policy toward the IAEA.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff