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Time to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency

By Ernesto Zedillo - posted Thursday, 4 September 2008

G8 leaders meeting in Japan during the second week of July noted that a growing number of countries look to launch peaceful nuclear power programs. The leaders stressed the importance, as the nuclear club expands, of ensuring the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the safety and security of nuclear facilities. Yet the organisation responsible for maintaining the global nuclear order - the International Atomic Energy Agency - despite being a remarkable institution for its achievements throughout its half a century existence, is struggling to do its job because of a chronic lack of resources.

This year, I chaired an independent 18-member international Commission that was asked to look into the future of the IAEA. My colleagues and I were impressed by the agency’s technical competence, whether in assessing Iran’s nuclear program or helping to fight hunger by using nuclear techniques to breed more resilient varieties of rice. But we were frankly shocked to learn that the IAEA, one of the most respected international organisations, has been operating virtually on a shoestring for nearly two decades.

The cost to the world of a single act of nuclear terrorism or a serious accident in a nuclear power plant would be incalculable. In contrast, the cost of strengthening the IAEA to help prevent such catastrophes is modest. The resource situation of the IAEA is now critical. Years of zero growth policies have left the organisation with a failing infrastructure. Vital elements of its work - for example nuclear safety and security - are funded largely on an unpredictable and unstable voluntary basis.


IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei was absolutely right a few weeks ago in telling its Board of Governors: “There is a disconnect between what you are asking the Agency to do and what you are ready to finance.”

Core agency activities, such as monitoring the shutdown of North Korean nuclear facilities, have had to be paid for through voluntary contributions solicited from member states because there are insufficient funds in the regular budget.

Likewise, the agency’s ability to analyse samples taken at nuclear facilities worldwide - essential for its independence and credibility in determining the nature of a country’s nuclear activities - is in serious jeopardy because of the obsolescence of its laboratory equipment and chronic under-investment in its infrastructure. With a regular budget this year totalling just €289 million (Au$487 million), the agency has rightly been described as an extraordinary bargain by many eminent persons.

In the commission’s report, we make recommendations on issues that world leaders need to tackle as a matter of urgency. These include strengthening the non-proliferation regime, accelerating nuclear disarmament and meeting rising demands from developing countries for access to nuclear techniques to combat poverty, disease and drought.

Ensuring safety in the use of nuclear energy and the security of nuclear and other radioactive materials must also be high priorities.

Unless the IAEA is given adequate human and financial resources, it will be unable to properly fulfill its crucial role in addressing these issues.


First, we recommend an immediate once-off cash injection of €80 million (Au$135 million) to enable the IAEA to, among other needs, refurbish its Safeguards Analytical Laboratory (SAL) and develop its Incident and Emergency Response Center. Investment in infrastructure and IT projects, for example, has been deferred because of budgetary restraints. The SAL, which evaluates sensitive samples taken at nuclear facilities and which must maintain accuracy, confidentiality, speed and cost effectiveness, was built in the 1970s, and both maintenance and investment in new equipment have suffered under the constrained budget.

Through its Incident and Emergency Response Center, the IAEA co-ordinates international notification and assistance to help states to respond in the event of a nuclear accident or a terrorist attack, and to cope with the consequences. In such a crisis, effective plans for public communication are critical to reduce the likelihood of panic, but the centre does not yet have the resources to fully carry out this role.

Second, the effective budget freeze must end. Funding needs to be made secure and predictable. The budget ideally needs to double by 2020. The extra resources would be used in a whole host of areas, from making sure that vital programs to combat nuclear terrorism are adequately staffed and equipped, to helping countries embarking on nuclear power programs to develop the necessary infrastructure, safety regimes and waste-disposal mechanisms.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - - (c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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About the Author

Ernesto Zedillo, director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, was president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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