“On the surface, the IAEA’s role has also grown and the agency is increasingly seen as a central actor. Yet, the system is fragmented and often incoherent, with too many plans, programs (not to mention acronyms) and players for even the most attentive of member states to understand or participate in.” Trevor Findlay
UN’s nuclear watchdog has strengths but needs a boost: report
OTTAWA — The International Atomic Energy Agency requires strengthening, but not a dramatic overhaul, concludes a report to be released Tuesday at Carleton University.
Unleashing the Nuclear Watchdog: Strengthening and Reform of the IAEA, by nuclear governance expert Trevor Findlay, portrays the agency as one of the United Nation’s most efficient and well-managed organizations, but also facing looming challenges and “significant” future unknowns.
Most startling, perhaps is that, “the agency appears to face an uphill battle in convincing its member states to take nuclear emergencies seriously,” Findlay writes in the 160-page study, to be presented at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
The overall global governance of emergency preparedness and response has advanced since the 1986 Chornobyl disaster from nonexistent to a complex web of treaties, arrangements and measures, he writes.
“On the surface, the IAEA’s role has also grown and the agency is increasingly seen as a central actor. Yet, the system is fragmented and often incoherent, with too many plans, programs (not to mention acronyms) and players for even the most attentive of member states to understand or participate in.”
Meanwhile, future unknowns include IAEA’s role in verifying nuclear disarmament and the extent that global climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will spur deployment of new nuclear reactors, Findlay writes.
More immediately, the IAEA has to repair the damage it inflicted on its image with its lackadaisical and faltering initial response to the core meltdowns and widespread release of radioactivity at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors in March 2011.
Findlay describes how the IAEA was supposed to provide the international community with information and advice, assist the stricken country where it could, act as a clearing-house to co-ordinate worldwide assistance, and begin to determine what had gone wrong and what lessons might be learned.
“The general public, member states, civil society and the media all expected the self-described, ‘independent intergovernmental, science and technology-based organization in the United Nations system that serves as the global focal point for nuclear cooperation’ to leap into action.
“It did not. For 24 hours the IAEA said nothing publicly. It apparently saw no need for an early public assessment of the situation, an urgent meeting of member states or even a press conference,” even as Vancouver residents rushed to buy iodine pills to counteract radioactive fallout and countries with nationals in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan worried about their evacuation.
“The agency held its first press briefing four days after the disaster struck, but relied solely on information from the Japanese government, whether accurate or not,” writes Findlay.
“It saw no need to interpret or supplement that information and no need to explain the reactor technology involved or the techniques being used to control the situation. Despite the agency’s vast experience and expertise acquired over 55 years, and much activity behind the scenes, it added no public value in the earliest days of the Fukushima crisis.
“With the Japanese government downplaying the severity of the situation and the U.S. government warning of reactor meltdowns, the agency should have seized the opportunity to provide continuous, independent, fact-based analysis of the situation, and assume the public profile and leadership expected of it.”
Under intense pressure from the United States and other Western countries, the IAEA eventually did leap into action and regained the lead in responding to the crisis, but not before its image had been tarnished, say Findlay.
“IAEA’s own nuclear emergency preparedness and response system faced, with Fukushima, its greatest test so far and, at least partly, it failed.
“The Fukushima case once again illustrated the weaknesses of global nuclear governance and the need for strengthening and reform. While the Agency is only part of that governance regime it is the most important component — a nucleus around which all the other atoms spin.”
The disaster led to widespread calls for the agency to review its safety standards and guides; strengthen its role in ensuring member states consider seismic dangers in designing, siting and operating nuclear facilities; and assist states in immediately conducting safety reviews (so-called “stress tests”) of existing facilities, among other measures.
Findlay is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and holds the William and Jeanie Barton Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson school. He also is director of school’s Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance.
He is currently a visiting research fellow with the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University.
Findlay says a key area for IAEA improvement is increased funding for the 55-year-old agency.
“It is an inescapable conclusion that the agency is significantly underfunded, considering its responsibilities and the expectations increasingly being placed on it.
“Fukushima has reinforced this conclusion. In almost all cases, strengthening and reform will require additional resources, especially funding that can usually only be provided by the member states holding the purse strings,”
His report, based on more than two years of research, interviews and consultations, also concludes:
• “Considering its capabilities, size and budget, [the IAEA is] a veritable bargain for international peace and security.”
• “Its nuclear safeguards system and associated verification activity is unparalleled.”
• “Its legitimacy and credibility allow it to oversee the formulation and dissemination of global nuclear nonproliferation, safety and security norms”
• “Its role in fostering improved nuclear safety is well established and set to grow following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.”
• “Its work in the sensitive area of nuclear security is expanding and has great long-term potential, given the likely ephemeral nature of some other international arrangements.”
• “Nuclear safeguards have been considerably strengthened in recent years, but current efforts to find new approaches and technologies and to change the old safeguards culture need to be intensified.”
• “The agency’s emergency response capabilities produced mixed outcomes during the Fukushima disaster and need careful reconsideration and extra resources.”
• “The agency’s role in nuclear safety is being strengthened post-Fukushima, but remains hobbled by member states’ reluctance to commit to mandatory measures and provide adequate resources.”
• “The agency’s leadership has struggled to find the correct balance between taking the initiative as an ‘independent’ organization and necessary acquiescence to member states’ disparate and evolving demands — especially over non-compliance controversies.”
• The IAEA “secretariat has faced some long-standing management issues, including: insufficient strategic planning; a flat management structure; inconsistent practices and quality control across departments; disjointed programming or ‘stovepiping’ among departments, resulting in an unnecessary proliferation of programs, projects and practices; and inadequate personnel policies.”
• “As a result of zero real budgetary growth, the Agency’s infrastructure, technology (including IT) and human resources have deteriorated and the adoption of modern management tools has been delayed (although steps are underway to address all of these).”
• “New special verification mandates may arise or be resurrected at any time, as in the cases of Iran, North Korea and Syria.”