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Nuclear Engineering International
Thursday, November 1, 2012

The International Atomic Energy Agency is ‘significantly underfunded’ and often has ‘unrealistic expectations’ placed upon it, according to a recent report from a Canada-based think tank. Further, it may have missed the window of opportunity for reform in the wake of Fukushima, author Trevor Findlay says.

In spite of its well-deserved reputation, the International Atomic Energy Agency “remains relatively underfunded, its powers significantly hedged and its technical achievements often overshadowed by political controversy,” according to the June 2012 report “Unleashing the Nuclear Watchdog: Strengthening and Reform of the IAEA”, by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

The report praises the IAEA overall, referring to it as “the nucleus around which all other parts of the global nuclear governance system revolve,” and says that it an “indisputable bargain,” considering the role it plays in international peace and security.

Missed opportunities?

Fukushima reinforced the conclusion that the Agency (whose 2011 budget was $330 million) is “significantly underfunded, considering its responsibilities and the expectations increasingly being placed on it.”

In 2008, the IAEA itself warned of its lack to meet the expectations of others:?“As the use of nuclear technology expands so will the expectations of States for the IAEA to coordinate the international response to emergencies in accordance with roles assigned to it by international conventions. The IAEA has established an incident and emergency centre but its ability to carry out these roles is insufficient.”

CIGI recommends that the IAEA should overhaul its emergency communications and preparedness framework. The current system consists of a ‘complex web’ of treaties, arrangements and measures, is ‘fragmented and often incoherent.’

It also calls for ‘more timely, user-friendly and media-savvy’ crisis communication. “With the Japanese government downplaying the severity of the situation and the US 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,” the report said.

The report says that today, the Agency’s role in nuclear safety “remains hobbled by member states’ reluctance to commit to mandatory measures, even after Fukushima.”

The report deems one of the major successes of the agency over the years to have been its proactive response to international crises, in which it took “advantage of each window of opportunity to improve its performance and enhance its role in global nuclear governance.”

It cites a few examples, including the strengthening of nuclear safeguards, after the discovery that Iraq had come close to a nuclear weapons capability, and the ‘fundamental expansion of its safety programme’ following the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

In the case of Fukushima, however, author Trevor Findlay, believes that the IAEA may have missed an opportunity to evolve.

Although there are moves afoot to strengthen nuclear safety in the wake of Fukushima, these remain non-mandatory.

“Unfortunately we didn’t use the window of opportunity presented by this disaster to create a very strong push towards better safety and a bigger role for the IAEA,” Findlay says in a video on the CIGI report (http://tinyurl.com/8gjm7uj).

“You really have to use this window very quickly to effect change within the IAEA...So again, I think we’ll go back to a very slow evolution of stronger safety standards and a stronger agency role.”

Future challenges

Like nuclear safety, while the IAEA’s activities in the area of nuclear security are growing, all of its offerings are non-binding on member states. The nuclear summits, not the IAEA, are the principle international forum for discussing nuclear security. This is one area where the IAEA could take more of an initiative.

The best-funded and largest programme, nuclear safeguards, has been considerably strengthened in recent years through new approaches, technologies and attempts to change the old safeguards culture. But verification of bulk-handling facilities and detecting undeclared activities and materials remain great challenges. The Agency needs to seek improvement in its capacities, while balancing costs, feasibility and member states’ sensitivities about intrusiveness, confidentiality and sovereignty. The IAEA should also prepare for the possibility of being asked to contribute to verifying future steps towards global nuclear disarmament.

Out of its hands

Member states have to be aware that unless they give the IAEA the necessary resources, especially funding, it will not be able to meet their expectations. The major funder of the IAEA is the United States, with over 25% of the regular budget and the technical cooperation budget, and a considerable percentage of the voluntary contributions. In contrast, newly emerging economies, notably Brazil, Russia, India and China, are ‘not pulling their weight’ in funding the Agency, the report says.

The report also says that the IAEA must be wary of raising unrealizable expectations of itself. “It should not, for instance describe itself a ‘hub’ of a particular realm unless it is truly able to fulfill such functions.” The Agency could better manage expectations of member states “by being more honest about the functions it can and cannot fulfill.”

The 144-page report, released in June, culminates in a list of major recommendations for strengthening and reform of the IAEA. These range from changes to the management structure, to improvements in technology, infrastructure and public diplomacy.

Most of the proposed reforms will require at least tacit support from member states, if not active political support/funding. Several proposals would require the excruciating job of amending the Statute (which requires a two-thirds majority of the 150-odd members), and are thus unlikely. Some of the reforms are within the agency’s own powers, such as improving public relations and recruitment.

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