When the IAEA was born

 

Fifty years ago, on 23 October 1956, eighty-one member countries of the United Nations system adopted the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Their action changed the nuclear world.

Bertrand Goldschmidt recounted those times in an essay first published ten years ago. The IAEA marks its 50th anniversary in July 2007.



Three months after the end of the Second World War, on 15 November 1945, the heads of the US, British and Canadian Governments, meeting in Washington, decided to adopt a policy of secrecy in the nuclear field until a system had been established for the effective international control of the new and formidable source of power. By also deciding to buy up all available uranium, they thus created a perfect policy of non-proliferation based on blocking the transfer of the two things essential for nuclear development: the technical knowledge and uranium, both of which are widely dispersed in the world today.

A month later, the Soviet Union accepted an Anglo-American proposal to establish within the United Nations an atomic energy commission consist-ing of the 11 countries represented on the Security Council, and Canada. On 24 January 1946, the United Nations approved the establishment of such a commission.

 

The Idea of an “International Authority”

In March 1946, on the initiative of the US Secretary of State, a group of prominent persons—presided over by David Lilienthal, later the first Chair-man of the US Atomic Energy Commission, and including also Robert Oppenheimer and three industrialists—was entrusted with the task of studying the problem of the peaceful development of nuclear energy and the elimination of nuclear weapons. The study led to a report which was almost as revolutionary at the political level as nuclear energy was at the technical level. The report centred on the idea that in the atomic age no security system based on agreements banning nuclear weapons or even on safeguards and inspections will work. In the report, it was proposed that all operations which were dangerous from the point of view of nuclear weapons develop-ment be placed outside the competence of individual States and entrusted to a single international authority. An international administrative body would own, operate and develop the nuclear industry on behalf of all nations. The international authority would be the owner of nuclear ores and fuels, would carry out research (even in the field of nuclear explosives) and would operate nuclear fuel fabrication plants and nuclear power reactors, while international inspectors would be responsible for discovering any clandestine activities which took place.

 

Debate at the United Nations

Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson backed the draft report, which was presented almost without change, on 14 June 1946, at the inaugural session of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission by the US delegate Bernard Baruch. One political clause had been inserted—it concerned abolition of the veto in respect of immediate sanctions against a nation seriously violating the treaty which was proposed. In the US proposal, the authority was called the International Atomic Development Authority, because its purpose was to control nuclear energy worldwide.

The transition from national to international controls would take place in stages still to be specified, the last stage being accompanied by the surren-der of nuclear weapons to the international control agency. From the outset, the Soviet Union, supported by Poland, was against the US plan; it demanded as a preliminary step the unconditional prohibition of nuclear weapons, later accepting the idea of periodic international inspections but not subscribing to the principles of international ownership and manage-ment, which it regarded as an unacceptable limitation on national sovereignty.

The negotiations continued during the autumn of 1946. For the first time, delegations contained scientists as well as diplomats, the former becom-ing advisers to the latter. The first headquarters of the United Nations were at Lake Success, about an hour’s drive from New York, symbolically located in the reconverted part of an armaments factory which was still in operation. During the long drive we had time to initiate the diplomats into the mysteries of the atom and of nuclear fission.

Despite initial disagreement, Baruch wanted to go ahead and forced a vote; this took place on 30 December 1946, the result being ten in favor and two—the Soviet Union and Poland—abstaining. Four days before—as we learned only several years later—the first Soviet atomic reactor had gone into operation. The Soviet Union had decided to place its trust in its technicians and not to negotiate from a position of weakness.

 

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