How the IAEA makes nuclear proliferation worse

Tom Adams
Ottawa Citizen
December 15, 2006

What international player has been sharing nuclear technologies with Iran and North Korea for years, while receiving not punishment but encouragement from the civilized world?

That international player assisted North Korea’s monstrous regime with uranium prospecting, uranium ore processing, and radioisotope production. It helped Iran develop uranium mining. It is right now helping Iran to acquire some frightening technology for its Bushehr reactor, and to upgrade a smaller and more flexible “research” reactor.

The answer is not Dr. Strangelove or Mike Myers’s character Dr. Evil or a cell of former Soviet weaponeers turned entrepreneurs or some shadowy Middle Eastern state. Instead, the agency in question is the same one that is supposed to protect the world from nuclear weapons proliferation: the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

While supposedly protecting us from nuclear proliferation, here is a sample of what the IAEA has been up to. In North Korea, the IAEA initiated 29 “technical co-operation” projects since 1978, of which 15 were completed. Iran is enjoying 14 active projects today along with 52 nuclear projects completed.

Other clients include Syria (15 active projects), Pakistan (top recipient of IAEA aid in 2004), Libya (37 projects, starting in 1976), Afghanistan (during the Soviet era), and Burma (11 active projects).

The IAEA’s mandate – frozen since its origin in the muddled “Atoms for Peace” era of the 1950s when nuclear electricity “too cheap to meter” would mystically erase poverty and the stain of nuclear weapons – is irreconcilably conflicted. It is responsible for spreading nuclear technology far and wide. It describes itself as the “global focal point for nuclear co-operation . . . facilitat(ing) the transfer of such technology and knowledge in a sustainable manner to developing member states.” It is also the agency responsible for verifying compliance with the international treaty designed to hold back nuclear Armageddon: the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NPT is itself irreconcilably conflicted. It entered into force in 1970. With 187 signatories, it is the most widely subscribed international treaty. The NPT’s three pillars are: prohibition of nuclear weapons proliferation, committing the five “declared” nuclear weapons states to eventual disarmament, and enshrining the “inalienable” rights of signatory countries to “participate in the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

The IAEA has not only scientifically aided many nuclear weapons proliferators, its nuclear weapons control record is nothing short of disastrous.

* The IAEA failed to detect Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program before the 1991 Gulf War and officially denied its existence, although Iraq was a member of the NPT and subject to the IAEA’s most extensive “full-scope safeguards.” Only after the war, unprecedented international inspections and defecting scientists revealed a massive program to develop both fission and fusion bombs. This dereliction matches the IAEA’s support for Iraq’s Osirak reactor, which was revealed as a plutonium factory after Israel bombed it in 1981.

* The Libyan government revealed that country’s extensive nuclear weapons program after the current Iraq war started, a program the IAEA had not detected despite Libya’s membership in the NPT and IAEA inspections. Among the discoveries were Chinese plans for a nuclear explosive, with details right down to the best glue to use on particular parts.

* The IAEA failed to detect, much less curtail, the “nuclear supermarket” run by A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist who admitted to selling plans and components to Libya, North Korea and Iran.

* The IAEA was the last to recognize North Korea’s military use of its civil nuclear power program.

* After nine years of work searching for abandoned dirty-bomb ingredients in Georgia, the IAEA found two potent radiation sources only last June.

Instead of controlling nuclear weapons, the IAEA spends much of its effort whitewashing the impacts of radioactive pollution from nuclear power. The IAEA’s official estimates of Chernobyl’s total expected health toll are constantly revised upward but lag behind the estimates of major independent studies.

As history has proved, one of the most frightening arms-control challenges is containing “dual-use” nuclear technologies – technologies that can be used for both civilian and weapons purposes. But the basic mandate of the IAEA and the fundamental legal framework of the NPT commits them to both promote dual-use, making them proliferators’ tools.

North Korea craftily employed the NPT en route to nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-il’s dad, Kim Il-sung, entered into the NPT in 1985 to secure Soviet nuclear aid. North Korea threatened withdrawal in 1994, but stayed after securing a deal with the Clinton administration to secure Western nuclear and non-nuclear aid.

North Korea finally withdrew in 2003. The UN Security Council’s reaction was muted largely because Pakistan and Syria – key North Korean missile clients – were members at the time. Upon withdrawal, North Korea dishonestly stated it “has no intention of making nuclear weapons” and nuclear activities “will be confined only to power production and other peaceful purposes.”

Nuclear regulatory agencies in Western countries once had mandates enshrining the same promote/control conflict that contaminates the IAEA and NPT today. The Canadian Atomic Energy Control Act of 1946, which created our federal nuclear regulator and research agency, embodied this conflict – the subtitle of that act was “An Act Relating to the Development and Control of Atomic Energy.” The U.S. had a similar mess under its Atomic Energy Commission that Congress moved to clean up with the creation of a safety-dedicated Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1974. Canada waited until May 2000 to create an officially safety-dedicated Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

In a victory of hope over logic, the Nobel Committee granted the IAEA and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, its Peace prize in 2005.

The world is moving far too slowly in recognizing nuclear technology for the hazard it represents. The fact that there is no agency or treaty single-mindedly dedicated to limiting and eliminating nuclear weapons speaks volumes. The promote/control conflict inherent in the IAEA and NPT has often increased the risk of nuclear weapons. We must scrap the IAEA and the NPT, and bring in dedicated replacements.

Does anybody think we have time to wait?

Tom Adams is executive director of Energy Probe, a national energy think-tank.

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