Opportune time to improve IAEA's role in global governance

June 1, 2012
(Dean Calma/IAEA).

On June 13, 2012, CIGI will publish Unleashing the Nuclear Watchdog: Strengthening and Reform of the IAEA. This report by CIGI Senior Fellow Trevor Findlay marks the culmination of a two-year research project that examined all aspects of the mandate and operations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), from major programs on safeguards, safety, security and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy to governance, management and finance. We speak to Trevor to learn more about the IAEA and why this report will have an impact.

CIGI: Your research and the final report are a thorough assessment of one of the most important instruments in global security governance. To what extent, and in what areas, do you think the IAEA needs reform?

Trevor Findlay: The report is commendatory of the IAEA overall, but points out areas where reform is necessary. The Agency is vital to international security, so it certainly shouldn’t be abolished. But like many institutions that are decades old, it’s showing its age in some respects and faces existing and future challenges.

Drastic measures need to be taken in the longer term to fund the Agency on a more sustainable basis. At the moment, groups of member states are either asking for different changes to how the organization is funded or defending different parts of the current arrangement, so, as the report points out, a grand bargain is needed.  If that bargain could be reached tomorrow that would be great. But politically,  that is likely to be impossible, so it will take much longer to achieve.

A second area for longer-term reform is gearing the Agency up to better detect undeclared nuclear facilities. This is a huge challenge. The Agency has, in the past, not been able to detect undeclared activities in the most serious cases. It did detect North Korean non-compliance, but in other cases (Syria, Iran and Iraq), it relied on outsiders such as opposition groups and national intelligence information. Over the longer-term, we really need to get the IAEA into a situation where it can do its own verification work. This is obviously sensitive: states guard their sovereignty and prize their confidentiality, and so more intrusive measures would pose some challenges. Some improvements have already been made, but in the long haul, we need to try to give the Agency that additional capability.

Other reforms to the Agency’s operations could be done relatively quickly — although not exactly with the stroke of a pen. One recommendation in the report is that  a true Deputy Director General be appointed. There is a very flat structure in the IAEA’s management: a Director General and six Deputy Director Generals. The idea is to create a position between the Director General and those other Deputy Director Generals, taking some of the pressure off the Director General, who, in the past, has had to occupy a very high profile during international crises involving the IAEA, while at the same time managing the Agency. A true Deputy Director General could relieve some of the burden during such crises, and help deal with IAEA diplomacy and management on a continuing basis.

CIGI: In the past two years, we’ve seen the IAEA lose some credibility in nuclear safety after Fukushima and we’ve seen other players (states) take the lead on issues of nuclear security. Is the IAEA losing its place in global governance?

Findlay: I don’t think the Agency is losing ground. Its safeguards work is  increasing in volume and intensity, more facilities and nuclear materials are coming under safeguards, there are more countries signing agreements across the range of nuclear issues, and more countries are seeking advice and support from the Agency on peaceful uses and on establishing their own safety and security regimes.

But it’s true that the IAEA doesn’t always utilize its capacity as well as it could. And it doesn’t always react to opportunities as it should — Fukushima is one example. To be fair, the Agency pointed out to its member states long before Fukushima that it wasn’t really well-funded or set up to run the international emergency centre, which is supposed to be put on 24-hour alert once an emergency occurs. There is now a Draft Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, elements of which the Agency is implementing to the extent that it is authorized to and has the requisite resources. But, by and large, it’s up to its member states to help the IAEA become more competent in the area of incident and emergeny preparedness and response and to implement the elements of the Plan that are directed at them, such as providing the Agency with details of emergency assistance they can provide.

The Agency could take more of an initiative on nuclear security. This depends on convincing member states that the organization is competent enough to handle this function and would be suitably sensitive toward states’ prerogatives regarding secrecy and sovereignty. There was recently a moderately successful nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea, but it was a non-IAEA activity.  The summits are a US initiative; the third, and probably last,  will be held in the Netherlands in 2014. In the meantime, the Agency is taking some modest steps to seize the issue. For instance, it is organizing a conference on nuclear security for 2013 — it’s not clear yet what the scope of it will be, or whether it will replace the security summits, but at least it’s a start. Many people are skeptical, but there are various ways to convince member states that the IAEA could succeed in nuclear security. It essentially needs to put it on its priority list and convince the developing countries in particular that this is an issue that affects all states, not just the developed ones.

CIGI: What would you say is the IAEA’s biggest accomplishment in the past decade?

Findlay: The Agency’s real achievement in the past decade has been turning around its thinking on nuclear safeguards. This has taken quite a long time — it’s been a couple of decades now since it was discovered that Iraq had come close to developing a nuclear weapon. The IAEA was tasked with improving its safeguards so that it wouldn’t again be surprised by a country violating its safeguards agreements.

Part of the problem within the Agency is cultural. Traditionally, safeguards inspectors were more like nuclear accountants — they had a checklist and made sure the books were in order and then they wrote a report saying a state was complying with its obligations. Clearly that wasn’t good enough, because Iraq was building a whole duplicate set of facilities right next door to its declared facilities. So the Agency struggled with turning its culture around. It takes a long time — you can’t sack a whole inspectorate, you have to work with them.

The Agency’s approach now, in addition to changing the inspectorate culture, is to look at all types of information about a state and not just rely on inspectors’ reports and material accounting. It relies on states to provide much more information and on open sources of information such as the media, the internet and published scientific and other official reports on nuclear matters. In terms of the inspectorate, they are trained to be more like inquisitors, so if something doesn’t add up, they can ask for more information or to visit a different part of the site, or really quiz their interlocutors about what they’re seeing and what the facts and figures mean. Inspectors reports are  now used to frame subsequent inspections rather than simply being filed away. Each country is subject to continuing scrutiny by teams of experts. This is quite a turnaround, and it’s taken quite a while for the Agency to achieve.

CIGI: Why do you think Unleashing the Nuclear Watchdog comes at such an opportune time?

Findlay: The report is important now because the new Director General, Yukiya Amano, has been in place for two years — long enough for him to achieve some improvements and reforms. At about midpoint in his term, the Director General is usually looking to be re-elected. He tends to be very careful in the next steps he takes — he doesn’t want to offend any member states, but at the same time, he needs to be proposing and taking initiatives convince member states that he should be re-elected. It’s an opportune time to put forward recommendations that will improve the Agency and maybe even help the Director General get re-elected!

Member states’ confidence in the Agency was shaken after Fukushima. During the initial weeks of the crisis, the IAEA wasn’t able to provide sufficient information independent of Japan. Thereafter, the Agency performed pretty well, but during those early weeks it struggled to fulfill the role expected of it. So in some ways, a year later, now is a good time to present ideas on how the Agency should rethink its role. The IAEA needs to decide to what extent it is an independent agency that can take the initiative and seize opportunities, or whether it will simply be bound by its collective members’ wishes, which are always divergent and sometimes indecipherable.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.