The IAEA, United Nations, and the new global nuclear agenda

Cooperative links in key areas have been strengthened in response to emerging challenges and opportunities

by Hans Blix


Radical changes in the global nuclear landscape after the Cold War have set the world on a compelling new course. Smaller nuclear arsenals, stronger bonds against the bomb's further spread, and renewed commitments for the atom's safe and peaceful use are all parts of the changing scene. The transformation is redefining the global nuclear agenda for the United Nations and the IAEA on the road to the next millennium.

Today's challenges and opportunities are rooted in the concerted international drive over the past half century to harness the atom and brighten prospects for a nuclear-weapons-free world. Despite positive steps and welcome shifts of attitude, there is a difficult distance to go. But key elements for sustaining progress are in place and the missing pieces are not hard to see.

The picture can be easily overshadowed by the many critical assessments and competing headlines of the day, especially in a year marking both the atomic bomb's horrific power and the anxious birth of the United Nations 50 years ago. The UN and its system of organizations have come in for some particularly tough criticism. Whatever specific points at issue, the views are bound by common threads: the aspiration for a better and safer world, and the growing desire for greater confidence that one is being built. The UN was born as the world's instrument for international peace and security to meet humanity's highest hopes and greatest expectations, and in some ways it has been asked to carry out nearly impossible missions. As the Atoms for Peace organization within the UN system, the IAEA, too, is held to serve our highest standards and ideals. (See box.)

While some of the criticism and calls for reform are justified, many accusations are misplaced. Often discounted is the fact that no organization operates in a vacuum. Achievements, and shortcomings, are closely bound with fluid external events and internal realities of what members are willing to do, pay for, and politically support. At the global level, the members are sovereign States who do not always see eye-to-eye every step of the way. Efforts to bridge differences, build consensus, and coordinate actions can be a complex, lengthy process. While talking about problems is not enough, it is the first step to finding and implementing workable solutions for them.

Fortunately, the international climate now is more conducive to constructive action than during most of the UN's first half century. The polarized ideological debates of the cold war no longer threaten to deadlock the UN. The warmer climate has opened important new avenues of global cooperation, and is bringing new problems that must be solved to the tables of the UN and its family of organizations.

"The problems that confront the United Nations are also a challenge for the Member States that make up the United Nations and the peoples of the world whom the organization serves," UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali has recently written. "In these changed circumstances, there is a pressing need for governments and public opinion to decide what they want the United Nations to be, what they want it to do, and what they are willing to contribute to make it work."

In the past, a good deal of criticism has been directed at the lack of cohesion and coordination in the UN system. In my view, the criticism is not applicable to the IAEA and its relations with the UN in the nuclear sphere. Channels have long been in place for effective cooperative action in fields of nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, and the safe development of peaceful nuclear technologies.

Three events over the past decade the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in 1986, the discovery of Iraq's clandestine nuclear-weapons programme in 1991, and the breakup of the Soviet Union into independent States in the 1990s have particularly left their marks. The IAEA's agenda has adapted accordingly, to respond to new sets of problems and needs. Some programmes have been reoriented, others significantly strengthened. The overriding aim is to support States in building a stronger, more effective international framework for safe nuclear development. Allow me to more fully address some important aspects within the context of global developments and the Agency's roles within the UN system.

Securing a nuclear-weapons-free world

Most visibly in the 1990s, the IAEA and UN have demonstrated close, prompt, and effective interaction in areas of disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. The widely publicized nuclear inspections in Iraq which the IAEA performs under the mandate given by the UN Security Council and with the cooperation of the UN Special Commission set up after the Gulf War are a case in point. Through dozens of IAEA-led missions under the Council's mandate, inspectors discovered and mapped Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapons programme, effectively moved to destroy or neutralize it, and activated a long-term monitoring and verification plan to prevent its revival.

The case tested the global community's resolve and the responsiveness of its mechanisms for sustained, coordinated and firm action. The IAEA's founders presciently vested the Agency with a right of direct access to the Security Council, where international authority for enforcement action is placed. The Council's determination to prevent proliferation was underscored in January 1992. In declaring that the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constitutes a threat to international peace and security, the Council emphasized the integral role of effective IAEA safeguards in efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and stated its readiness to take appropriate measures in the case of any safeguards violations notified by the IAEA.

In Iraq, the Council granted the IAEA inspectorate incomparably wider powers and access to more information than States normally do under its safeguards system. Lessons from the case have prompted States to accept verification measures, and to consider others, that greatly strengthen the Agency's confidential database and verification capabilities, especially with respect to detecting undeclared nuclear activities. The Agency's inspections to verify the nuclear material subject to safeguards in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) already have demonstrated that these measures are working, albeit difficulties remain in securing the DPRK's full compliance with its safeguards agreement.

Overall, the Security Council has looked to the IAEA as the nuclear inspection arm of the UN system, and the IAEA has looked to the Council as the body politically responsible for ensuring compliance with nuclear non-proliferation undertakings. Building upon this established relationship is now of paramount importance as more arms-control agreements requiring verification are adopted or near completion, and the non-proliferation regime nears universality.

Forward movements. In May 1995, meeting at UN headquarters in New York, the 178 States party to the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) took important steps forward. (See related article.) They indefinitely extended the NPT and confirmed that the NPT involved a commitment to nuclear disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States. They targeted 1996 for conclusion of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which is being negotiated under auspices of the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. States also called for an early conclusion of an agreement to cut off production of fissile materials for weapons purposes; they endorsed the creation of more nuclear-weapon-free zones; they expressed support for ongoing efforts aimed at more effective nuclear verification and IAEA safeguards; and they called for the provision of necessary resources for the Agency to meet its responsibilities under the NPT.

As the outcome of the NPT Conference made clear, there is near universal renunciation of the bomb. The overwhelming majority of States no longer see the acquisition of nuclear weapons as being in the best interests of their national security. Rather, these interests today are tied to social, environmental, and economic conditions where expensive nuclear weapons are useless tools but affordable peaceful nuclear techniques are valuable resources.

At the same time, more States are showing a readiness to make their nuclear programmes more transparent and open to IAEA inspection and verification. They are doing so in recognition of the need to provide credible assurance to their neighbours and the world that nuclear material and installations are used exclusively for peaceful purposes. Rather than limiting national sovereignty, nuclear transparency and verification are seen as means through which a State can enhance confidence in its non-nuclear weapon status and respect for its sovereignty.

Extremely positive moves have been made. South Africa rolled back its nuclear-weapons programme, joined the NPT, and fully cooperated with subsequent IAEA verification measures. Both Argentina and Brazil have opened their nuclear sectors for inspection to each other and the IAEA, and nuclear-weapon-free zones pinned to IAEA verification are poised to come into being in Africa and into full force in Latin America and the Caribbean. Such a zone in the Middle East also is no longer just a utopian dream, in light of progress painstakingly achieved through the region's peace process.

Challenges. Not all States having significant nuclear activities have adhered to the NPT or accepted full-scope IAEA safeguards. That is one important missing piece of the non-proliferation regime. While these States do not say they house nuclear weapons or harbour ambitions to make them, they have so far not been willing to accept comprehensive international verification of their nuclear programmes. The hope for the future hinges on the resolution of underlying regional security problems and further progress in the nuclear disarmament field. A combination of measures will be needed, including those further reducing the nuclear arsenals of nuclear-weapon States, and fostering detente, security arrangements, and assurance that neighbours do not develop nuclear weapons. In the Middle East, for example, the IAEA is assisting States on future verification models and approaches within the framework of their desire to create a regional zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Another challenge facing the global community is the anxiety over new risks following the breakup of the Soviet Union. In particular, the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials has raised concerns, both from the standpoint of radiation safety and nuclear security. Most of the cases reported and investigated so far, predominately in Europe, have involved material of an amount or nature not useful for weapons, and none has ultimately posed a serious proliferation or radiation risk. The illegal actions have set off an alarm, however, prompting strong countermeasures against such unauthorized and uncontrolled movement of nuclear material. States cooperatively are strengthening their internal and border surveillance systems, and the IAEA is executing an action plan to assist them in dealing with some aspects of the problem. The work includes the establishment of a databank on reported trafficking cases and advising States on effective systems of nuclear material accountancy and control. In July 1995, the President of the UN Security Council issued a statement underlining the Council's support for IAEA activities in this area.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union also gave rise to three new independent States with nuclear weapons on their territories, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. All three have joined the NPT as non-nuclear weapon States, and accepted comprehensive IAEA safeguards. The actions reconfirm their commitments to remove all nuclear weapons from their territories, though these steps are envisaged over the longer term.

A number of other challenges emanate from emerging needs for effective verification in areas of nuclear disarmament and arms control.

New verification roles. The CTBT, cut-off agreement, and nuclear disarmament accords already reached or in sight will all require effective verification systems.

The nuclear test ban treaty will involve various types of verification measures and approaches, some of which States have noted could effectively be carried out by the IAEA. The treaty's obligations, for instance, will considerably overlap relevant provisions of the NPT, under which the IAEA already implements verification measures in non-nuclear weapon States. Some States envisage the IAEA being entrusted with further verification tasks under the CTBT.

The cut-off agreement foresees a non-discriminatory ban on the production of fissionable material for nuclear weapons purposes. Here, too, the IAEA's relevant experience is being recognized. Under the NPT, the Agency applies safeguards to the types of installations that would be subject to verification under a cut-off agreement.

Under disarmament agreements, large amounts of nuclear material will arise from the dismantling of nuclear warheads. While the nuclear-weapon States will verify actual dismantlement of weapons, that is not necessarily the case for verification of the recovered plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Since late last year, the IAEA has been safeguarding some stored quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material in the United States, and it could provide similar verification in Russia or other nuclear-weapon States as decisions are taken.

Stockpiles of plutonium and enriched uranium are projected to grow considerably in years ahead, both as a result of weapons dismantlement and commercial nuclear operations. The Agency already is working with States on methods and approaches that are needed for effectively safeguarding these materials whether they are kept in storage, disposed of as waste, or recycled as fuel in nuclear plants for electricity generation.

Expanding legal framework. In all these areas of non-proliferation and arms control, the established legal nuclear framework will expand as new agreements are reached. We know from experience, however, that agreements cannot be built on trust alone. They invariably call for confidence-building measures, notably effective verification. The more that armed forces and armaments are reduced, the more States will need to be confident that commitments are being observed, respected, and credibly verified.

The IAEA's efforts to strengthen its verification system aim at providing more credible assurances about the correctness and completeness of declared nuclear inventories under NPT safeguards agreements, and thus about the absence of undeclared nuclear activities. Measures already in place and planned call for greater cooperation from States. That governments are supporting them signals the growing importance they place upon raising the world's level of nuclear security, and reinforcing confidence in its global guardians.

Nuclear safety & sustainable development

As in the safeguards field, new challenges and opportunities are influencing directions to ensure safe nuclear development. Many activities greatly contribute to realizing global objectives for sustainable development under Agenda 21 adopted at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development.

High on the agenda are issues of nuclear and radiation safety. Since the devastating Chernobyl accident in 1986, States have adopted three safety-related international conventions under IAEA auspices and are now working on others. The adopted agreements, which all set legally binding rules, cover the early notification of nuclear accidents; the provision of assistance in the case of nuclear emergencies; and fundamental requirements and mechanisms for ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants. Under preparation is a convention covering the safe management of radioactive waste, and a revision of the Vienna Convention on liability for nuclear damage. Additionally, parties to the London Convention, under auspices of the UN's International Maritime Organization, have adopted an international ban on the dumping of radioactive waste at sea, assigning the IAEA new responsibilities.

These global steps do not transfer jurisdiction from national authorities who remain chiefly responsible for nuclear and radiation safety. They do, however, underline the growing awareness among States that safety levels must be high everywhere, and that basic rules should be respected by all.

In many instances, the work draws upon and augments the IAEA's extensive base of safety standards and services. Over the past years, for example, fundamental standards for nuclear power plants, and for radiation protection in fields of medicine, agriculture, and industry, have been revised. International organizations ranging from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and International Labour Office (ILO) have been involved in these efforts. In 1996, the IAEA will be updating its recommendations covering the safe transport of radioactive materials, which regulators apply worldwide for shipments on land, by sea, and by air.

The effects of radiation releases on human health and the environment also are drawing close attention. Building upon its sponsorship of the International Chernobyl Project in the early 1990s, the IAEA is organizing with WHO and the European Commission a major international symposium in April 1996, a decade after the accident. The scientific meeting will factually assess Chernobyl's radiological consequences, in light of continuing speculation over its health and environmental effects.

Some special needs have arisen in countries of Central and Eastern Europe. They include upgrading levels of safety at nuclear plants of Chernobyl design, as well as other types of power reactors; improving regulation and control of radiation sources and their safe use; and coordinating actions to strengthen global cooperation with Russia in areas of radioactive waste management and environmental restoration.

Nuclear power and energy needs. Greater attention to issues of global safety should not mask the overall nuclear record, which is excellent. The world's 432 nuclear power plants, for example, generate about 17% of the world's total electricity, and far higher shares in many countries. Their normal operation has little environmental impact. As the environmentally conscious Club of Rome has noted and many States have realized in practice, nuclear power is a greener option than those emitting carbon dioxide and other gases as waste products threatening the atmosphere.

As sustainable development brings better living conditions to a growing world population, greater use of energy, especially electricity, will be demanded. Where will it come from? Extensive analyses of energy options are needed to factually frame answers. The IAEA and several other international organizations are assisting in comparative assessments of the benefits and problems of different electrical power options, including nuclear energy.

Nuclear techniques and development. Most States do not have nuclear power plants, but they do apply nuclear techniques in many other ways. Being emphasized today are applications targeted at improving the production and preservation of food, health care services, industrial production processes, and fresh water supplies, a problem of growing magnitude.

Working with a range of UN partners, the IAEA is carrying out projects to improve crop yields and pest controls in Bangladesh, China, and Mali, for example, and to strengthen health screening programmes of newborn infants in Tunisia and Uruguay. At the same time, desalination of seawater is drawing attention from countries in North Africa and the Middle East confronted with serious water needs. Agency specialists are examining the technology's potential. Studies include analysis of possible coupling schemes with nuclear reactors to meet both desalination's energy requirements and the electricity needs of local factories, households, and businesses.

Throughout these and other IAEA-supported projects, countries are building up their capacity and skills for safely applying nuclear techniques to achieve key development goals. To maximize project benefits, stretch its limited resources, and bring the needed scientific expertise to bear on specific problems, the Agency is now reinforcing its ties with national and regional development agencies and banks, as well as with other global organizations.

Building for the future

As we critically reflect upon the changing world in this commemorative year, loud headlines should not obscure the quiet achievements of global cooperation. The record reflects substantial progress, giving us much to build upon.

In a climate favouring nuclear cooperation rather than confrontation, renewed efforts to uplift human standards of living have a greater chance of fruition. Disarmament is integral to the pace of progress. So, too, are advances in other fields notably telecommunications, biotechnology, and branches of science and medicine that will expand our access to knowledge and understanding of earth and human life systems.

We have learned first hand that the world's security cannot be defined by the military dimension alone. At the personal level, human security fundamentally embodies safety from threats of hunger and disease.

The military side of the equation has tended to dominate thoughts and national budgets. That is starting to change, as countries cut back military spending, overall at a 3% annual rate since 1987. The UN has estimated that the reduction the so-called peace dividend has amounted to an estimated US $935 billion worldwide between 1987-94. Unfortunately so far, not much of that peace dividend has been rechanneled for social and environmental development or for what might be called sustainable disarmament.

Coming decisions will greatly influence capabilities to meet the needs of global human security, in all its growing dimensions. In the next century as we heard so dramatically at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo there will be millions more citizens of the world. The headlines tell us the population bomb is ticking, that it took 10,000 generations for the world to reach two billion people but only 46 years about the UN's lifetime for the population to triple.

The future is clear in its problems. Yet as UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali has noted, it is in many ways more uncertain and complicated as to solutions. Hard work, greater cooperation, and resources are demanded. This is especially true in the nuclear sphere, where the global foundation tested and strengthened over the past decade must now be even more firmly supported to meet the challenges and opportunities before us.


Dr. Blix is Director General of the IAEA.