As a founding member since 1957 of the International Atomic Energy Agency—known popularly as the “nuclear watchdog”—Canada has played a disproportionate role in ensuring the agency’s well-being and advancement.

But Canada’s more recent stance against boosting the agency’s budget and its complaints about bearing the burden of safeguards are puzzling.

If it achieves it, Canada should use its upcoming chairmanship of the nuclear watchdog’s controlling board to once again position itself as a leader.

Canada’s ties to the agency are deep. Canadian diplomat William Barton helped draft the agency’s statute. Canada was the first country to volunteer to put its exported uranium under nuclear safeguards, which are designed to prevent diversion of such material from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons.

As a perpetual member of the agency’s Board of Governors, Canada has played a leading role in nuclear governance in all areas of the IAEA’s mandate. As a strong supporter of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, this country has contributed mightily to the development of the nuclear safeguards regime. It has provided key personnel, including the first head of the safeguards department, and a steady stream of cost-free experts.

Canada has been generous in providing voluntary funding to assist developing countries in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and for other agency needs such as technology for its analytical laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria.

More broadly Canada has traditionally complied fully with IAEA-supported treaties in respect of nuclear nonproliferation, safety, and security. Canada’s only recent lapse was the dismissal of its chief nuclear regulator, justified by Prime Minister Stephen Harper partly on party political grounds, even though according to the Nuclear Safety Convention national regulators are supposed to be independent of political interference.

Canada, however, is among the most transparent and collaborative of countries in the realm of nuclear governance. It provides among the most detailed reports of any country on nuclear safety matters, as required by the Nuclear Safety Convention, and responds well to recommendations made at treaty review meetings. Canada was among the first countries to qualify for integrated safeguards (only granted to states that can prove impeccable compliance with strengthened safeguards over several years) and its nuclear safety and security standards generally exceed those recommended by the IAEA.

Why so miserly?

Yet there are some puzzling aspects to Canada’s current involvement with the IAEA. One is the lead role it has assumed in the Geneva Group of Western states voting bloc in pursuing zero real budgetary growth for the IAEA (along with all other organizations in the UN family).

It is unclear why Canada, a wealthy country that is not in financial crisis, is leading the charge on this issue. It is especially odd given Canada’s strong political support for the agency and the fact that decades of stinginess have left the IAEA’s infrastructure tattered and many of its programs desperate for better staff and technology, including keeping its all-important inspectorate at the extraordinarily low number of 250 for years.

Canada also unfortunately has a reputation for constantly complaining about the safeguards burden it bears. While it is true that Canada, along with Japan and Germany, is subject to more IAEA inspections than any other country (to the extent that the IAEA  maintains a permanent office in Toronto, as it does in Tokyo), the demonstration effect of Canada’s good international citizenship in accepting comprehensive safeguards is priceless. This is especially useful when it comes to pressuring other states, not least Iran, about the need for intrusive and intensive verification measures. Complaining about the burden does nothing to ease it but instead tarnishes Canada’s reputation.

Canada is likely to soon assume the chair of the IAEA’s Board of Governors (the IAEA says it hasn’t received any nominations in advance of the Sept. 24 vote, but chairmanship rotates geographically and it’s in this region’s court). The position would provide the country with a perfect opportunity to pursue strengthening and reform of the agency and bolster Canada’s own image at the same time.

Among the measures it should pursue are: depoliticization (to the extent possible) of the board’s own proceedings; the drafting of an agency-wide strategic plan; implementation of the Action Plan on Nuclear Safety agreed after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster; and budgetary reform that makes contributions more equitable, replaces zero real growth with a needs-based approach, and brings key programs like nuclear security and technical co-operation into the regular budget rather than relying on voluntary contributions.

Canada should seize the moment to reassert a leading role at the nuclear watchdog.

Trevor Findlay is the author of Unleashing the Nuclear Watchdog: Strengthening and Reform of the International Atomic Energy Agency, published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He holds the William and Jeanie Barton Chair at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Canada should seize the moment to reassert a leading role at the nuclear watchdog.
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