In 1963, US President John F. Kennedy forecast that by the 1990s, over 20 countries around the world would possess nuclear weapons. It was a frightening prediction for a world already shocked by a nuclear missile crisis over Cuba and an escalating Cold War arms race.
Within only a few years of that prediction, however, the international community had taken decisive steps toward averting the President's nuclear nightmare. In large numbers, countries began endorsing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the NPT - and similar regional treaties - aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons while promising nuclear disarmament negotiations among the five "declared" Nuclear Weapon States. Today, some 185 countries are parties to the NPT and it has been made permanent.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has, from the outset, been the instrument of governments to verify that the "peaceful use" commitments made under the NPT or similar agreements are kept - performing what is known as its "safeguards" role. The Agency, established in 1957 as an autonomous intergovernmental organization in the UN family, was mandated to "accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world" and to ensure "that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose."
Some 40 years later, the IAEA has an annual operating budget of about US$250 million, a staff exceeding 2,200 people (about one quarter of whom deal with safeguards) and 125 Member States, whose interests are represented through the two principal policy-making organs - the General Conference, which includes all Member States, and the 35-member Board of Governors.
Can the international community continue to build the detente among regions and nations that is the essential basis for preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons? One central element is a strong and impartial system to verify that countries are meeting their non-proliferation obligations. This is what the IAEA safeguards system has provided for nearly three decades: "comprehensive" safeguards have been applied in dozens of countries with nuclear facilities around the world since the early 1970s, and no diversion of any significant quantity of nuclear material placed under safeguards has been detected.
The discovery of a clandestine nuclear weapons development programme in Iraq after the Gulf War, however, demonstrated vividly the serious limitation of the ability of the IAEA safeguards system to detect possible undeclared nuclear activities. This discovery - together with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of new countries with new security perceptions - galvanized support for improvement among IAEA Member States and has helped to accelerate a process of strengthening safeguards effectiveness and improving efficiency.
Today, a newly strengthened safeguards system stands ready to provide the international community with early warning about the possible diversion or clandestine production of nuclear materials that could be used for weapons purposes. It can help carry the global community into a new century in which the threat of nuclear weapons' use will - it is hoped - continue to recede.
The positive news does not end there, however. Recent moves by the Russian Federation and United States to put some of the nuclear material removed from their weapon stockpiles under IAEA verification demonstrate that nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament initiatives are moving in a common direction. The IAEA, with the strengthened safeguards system it manages, has the institutional experience, maturity and flexibility to meet this challenge.
The late President Kennedy would be pleased with the steps that the international community has taken to avert his prediction. This publication attempts to provide clear, simple answers to some of the most fundamental questions about controlling the further spread of nuclear weapons and the pivotal role being performed by the IAEA.