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The International Atomic Energy Agency: Fifty Years of Atoms for Peace

Seoul, Republic of Korea (ROK)
Conference on the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the IAEA

The International Atomic Energy Agency is viewed differently by different people. To some, the Agency is the world´s "nuclear watchdog". To others, it is a helping hand, a centre of advanced science for the benefit of humanity.

These two dimensions - a guardian of nuclear security and a vehicle for development - reflect two sides of the same ideal: Atoms for Peace - an ideal born out of the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; an ideal that was the precursor for the creation of the Agency.

"Snapshots" of IAEA History

In the years immediately following World War II, there was increasing concern as more countries started to master the technology to develop nuclear weapons. During that same period, peaceful nuclear applications were also being developed in medicine, agriculture, industry and - more importantly - the generation of electricity: technologies with great potential to save lives, reduce suffering, and advance economic development.

The pressing issue therefore was how to develop and promote these peaceful applications, while at the same time preventing the spread of weapons technology. That was - and in fact remains - the nuclear challenge.

In 1953 U.S. President Eisenhower, who knew first-hand of the horrors of war, made an inspired appeal before the United Nations General Assembly. In his "Atoms for Peace" speech, he advocated the worldwide pursuit of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and the reduction of nuclear weapons stockpiles. To lead this effort, he called for the establishment of "an International Atomic Energy Agency".

In 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into force. It is based on a grand bargain: countries that joined committed themselves not to develop nuclear weapons in return for access to peaceful nuclear technology - and in return for a commitment by the five nuclear weapon States at the time to divest themselves of their nuclear arsenals and move towards nuclear disarmament.

Today, the NPT is one of the most widely adhered to treaties, with 189 States party.

Learning from Experience: Nuclear Verification
A key to success, whether for institutions or individuals, is the ability to learn from experience. The IAEA is no exception, and we have had our share of learning experiences. The NPT had given the IAEA the powers of inspection to provide assurance that non-nuclear-weapon States are complying with non-proliferation obligations. But in the early 1990s, after the discovery of Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons programme, it became clear that the IAEA verification system needed to be reinforced. We had the ability to monitor a country’s declared nuclear material. But we did not have the tools needed to provide assurance regarding the absence of "undeclared" nuclear material and activities.

After lengthy deliberations, a new mechanism was developed in 1997. The new "additional protocol" requires a country to provide the Agency with more information, and to grant inspectors expanded access to locations and facilities. Now - ten years later - 77 non-nuclear-weapon States have additional protocols in force. But this is still much less than half of the parties to the NPT. To be fully effective this key tool of the nuclear verification regime must become the universal standard.

Learning from Experience: Nuclear Safety
Another seminal event occurred in April of 1986, when the world was hit with the news of the accident at Chernobyl. The accident was clearly a setback to nuclear power. Many lives were lost. Thousands suffered major health impacts, and there were devastating environmental and social impacts. While the accident was the result of an old reactor design, compounded by gross safety mismanagement, Chernobyl was also a wake-up call for the pressing need for an overhaul of nuclear safety.

A result was the development of an international "nuclear safety regime". International conventions were put in place, creating legally binding norms to enhance the safety of nuclear activities. The IAEA updated its body of safety standards to reflect best industry practices. And in addition, both the IAEA and WANO, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, created international networks to conduct peer reviews and exchange operating information to improve safety performance.

Learning from Experience: Nuclear Security
Similar to the shock of Iraq and Chernobyl, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 prompted sweeping re-evaluations of nuclear security risks. Policymakers realized what could happen if radioactive material fell into the wrong hands. Talk of "nuclear terrorism" and "dirty bombs" filled the headlines.

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the IAEA, as well as national governments, tightened the nuclear security framework to ensure that nuclear facilities and materials would be kept secure. Three lines of defence were emphasized: prevention - protecting material and facilities against malicious acts; detection - using trained technicians and sophisticated equipment to identify and stop illegal trade in nuclear and other radioactive materials; and response - ensuring a swift and effective reaction to acts of nuclear or radiological terrorism.

As a result of this nuclear security strategy, lost, stolen and abandoned radioactive sources have been recovered and put into safekeeping. Radiation detectors have been installed at border crossings and ports. High enriched uranium has been removed from many research reactors. And instances of attempted or actual smuggling have been monitored, tracked and blocked.

While much remains to be done, nuclear installations and material around the world are now more secure.

Cooperation in Nuclear Technology

While the Agency´s work in nuclear verification, safety and security attracts the greatest attention, it represents only part of the Agency picture. More often we are involved in what are, regrettably, silent crises that have to do with poverty, hunger and disease. And, this is where the developmental component of the "Atoms for Peace" mission comes into play. Today, the Agency´s technical cooperation programme comprises over 1,000 projects distributed in more than 50 fields of activity in 115 Member States.

Let me offer an example. The Agency joined forces with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1967 to carry out collaborative work. One of the success stories from this collaboration has been in the area of plant breeding - using radiation to speed up the natural selection process. New varieties of crops can be chosen with characteristics tailored to a particular environment: for example, grains with higher yield, better nutritional value, tolerance to salty soil or resistance to a specific disease. By helping local scientists develop these plant breeding techniques, the IAEA essentially helps many of these poorer regions to feed themselves. Successes have ranged from wheat in drought-prone parts of Africa to barley in the high Andes mountains of Peru and rice in Vietnam.

Technical cooperation in the use of nuclear techniques is driven by the needs of Member States. Our projects cover a broad spectrum. Isotope hydrology to help locate and manage safe drinking water in Bangladesh. Radiation sterilization to help eliminate insect pests, such as the tsetse fly, that kills livestock and humans in Ethiopia. Or using the monetary award that came with the Nobel Peace Prize to train cancer therapy specialists in Nicaragua.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is also a major area of IAEA activity. There are currently 437 nuclear power reactors in operation in 30 countries. These reactors supply about 15.2% of the world´s electricity.

To date, the use of nuclear power has been concentrated in industrialized countries. In terms of new construction, however, the pattern is different; 16 of the 30 reactors now being built are in developing countries, and most of the recent expansion has been centred in Asia. China, for example, currently has four reactors under construction, and plans a more than five-fold expansion in its nuclear generating capacity over the next 15 years. India has seven reactors under construction, and plans roughly a seven-fold increase in capacity by 2022.

In the near future, we may well see additional countries in the Asia-Pacific region choosing the nuclear power option. Vietnam intends to begin construction of its first nuclear power plant in 2015. Indonesia plans to build two 1000 megawatt reactors in central Java. And just last month, the Energy Generating Authority of Thailand announced plans to build two large nuclear plants, with construction to begin in 2015.

The resurgence of interest in nuclear power is not limited to Asia. Other countries such as Jordan and Turkey are seriously considering or planning for the introduction of nuclear power programmes, and many others, such as Argentina, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, and South Africa, are at work to expand existing programmes.

Here in the Republic of Korea, nuclear power has been a fixture since the late 1970s. With 20 operating power reactors supplying about 40% of electricity demand, one nuclear plant under construction and seven more planned, the ROK has one of the most ambitious nuclear power programmes in the world.

Atoms for Peace: Looking to the Future

This brief overview of the IAEA and its development highlights the importance of its two missions: security and development. As we look to the future, it is clear that both aspects will continue to be highly relevant. On the one hand, the increasing demand for environmentally friendly energy is driving a renewed interest in nuclear power. On the other hand, there is increasing concern about the proliferation potential associated with the spread of nuclear technology.

How can we reconcile these competing considerations? What measures do we need to take to ensure that both aspects of Atoms for Peace are adequately addressed, to maximize the benefit and minimize the risk?

Nuclear Power: An Engine for Development
Let me begin with nuclear power.

It is important to understand the reasons that are driving this renewed interest. For many countries, nuclear power is a way to enhance the security and diversity of their energy supplies. Another factor - particularly in view of increasing fears of climate change - is that nuclear power emits almost no greenhouse gases.

And the strong performance record of nuclear plants over the past two decades - in terms of improved plant reliability, lowered operating costs, and a strong safety record - has put nuclear power in a more favorable light.

The future of nuclear power will also be greatly impacted by technological innovation - the development of new reactor and fuel cycle technologies. As might be expected, current nuclear R&D projects are focused on enhancing nuclear safety, reducing proliferation risks, minimizing waste generation and improving economic performance. In addition, the IAEA is providing guidance to interested Member States on the extensive infrastructure requirements and milestones needed to begin a new nuclear power programme.

The IAEA´s International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) works to ensure that the future needs of all countries, in particular developing countries, are understood and taken into account when innovative nuclear systems are evaluated and developed. Other nuclear innovation projects are also progressing, such as the Generation IV International Forum. Many developing countries have been particularly interested in efforts to develop small and medium-size reactor designs - which allow a more incremental investment, provide a better match to small electrical grids, and are more easily adapted to other applications such as district heating and seawater desalination.

Nuclear Safety: Always a Work in Progress
Nuclear safety must always be considered a work in progress. The international nuclear safety regime over the years has produced many insights on how to minimize safety risks. But we cannot rest on our laurels. As nuclear power technology continues to spread to new countries, and as new reactor designs are developed and put to use, it is essential that existing safety standards, operational practices and regulatory oversight are adapted - and in some cases strengthened - to ensure enhanced levels of safety into the future.

Strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

There are four ways in which the nuclear non-proliferation regime must be strengthened.

Control Nuclear Material
First, we must ensure more effective control over nuclear material - which is the "choke point" for preventing the production of additional nuclear weapons.

Good progress has been made in recent years to improve the physical protection of such material. These efforts should be redoubled. Export controls should be strengthened. And we should continue to minimize and eventually eliminate the civilian use of high enriched uranium.

But it is also crucial that we improve control over nuclear material production: that is, the sensitive nuclear operations that involve uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. These activities are part of a peaceful nuclear fuel cycle, but also can be used to produce the material for nuclear weapons. Countries that have such operations are only a short step away from a nuclear weapons capability.

For some time, I have been advocating that we should consider a multinational approach to enrichment and reprocessing - to ensure that no one country has the capability to independently produce sensitive nuclear material.

The first step would be to create a mechanism for the "assurance of supply" of nuclear fuel, possibly including a fuel bank to be managed by the IAEA. The second step would seek to bring any new operations for uranium enrichment and plutonium separation under multinational control. These multinational controls should also be extended to facilities that already exist.

Strengthen Nuclear Verification
Second, we must strengthen the verification authority and capability of the IAEA.

Effective verification has four elements: adequate legal authority; state-of-the-art technology; access to all relevant information; and sufficient human and financial resources.

I have already mentioned the importance of the additional protocol to comprehensive safeguards agreements. But I should also say a word about resources. In 2004, a UN High Level Panel singled out the IAEA´s work as "an extraordinary bargain".

Yet what many do not know is that the Agency´s ability to perform its critical functions could be eroded, because we are forced to make do on a shoestring budget.

Given the threats we face - given that IAEA verification, as we have learned, can be crucial for decisions on war and peace, and that safety and security are key to the future viability of nuclear energy - we need a dramatic increase in the support of the international community.

Deal More Effectively With Proliferation Threats
Third, the nuclear non-proliferation regime must develop a more effective approach for dealing with proliferation threats. The NPT and the IAEA rely on the United Nations Security Council to ensure compliance with non-proliferation obligations. The present system offers an array of measures ranging from dialogue to sanctions to enforcement actions. But judging by our record in recent years, these measures - rather than being applied in a consistent manner to deal effectively with proliferation issues - are employed haphazardly, and too often with political overtones.

For nuclear non-proliferation to be enforced effectively, we need a more agile and more systematic approach for responding to cases of proliferation. Dialogue, incentives and sanctions - and, in extreme cases, other enforcement measures - all have their place in such a system; but the system itself must be reformed.

To be effective in dealing with proliferation threats, the Security Council must also recognize the linkage between different threats to our security. Poverty in many cases leads to human rights abuses and lack of good governance. This in turn results in a deep sense of disempowerment and humiliation, which creates the ideal breeding ground for extremism and violence. And it is in regions of longstanding conflicts that countries are most frequently driven to pursue nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

The Council, therefore, must operate in a framework that recognizes the indivisible nature of security, and the symbiotic relation of all its aspects.

Reinvigorate Arms Control
This brings me to the urgent need to revive disarmament efforts. We must find a way for nuclear disarmament to be taken seriously.

Roughly 27 000 nuclear warheads remain in the arsenals of nine countries. Strategic reliance on these weapons by these countries and their allies undoubtedly motivates others to pursue nuclear weapons, either for protection, or projection of power, or both.

It is becoming clear that a security strategy rooted in "Us versus Them" is no longer sustainable. For progress to occur, we must begin working on a new security paradigm. A security paradigm in which no country relies on nuclear weapons for its security. A system with effective mechanisms for resolving conflicts. A system in which longstanding regional tensions, like those in the Middle East, are given the priority and attention they deserve. A system that is equitable, inclusive and effective.

The ROK and the IAEA: Partners for Common Objectives

For many years, the Republic of Korea has been a valuable and strong supporter of the IAEA. On the non-proliferation front, the ROK is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with both a comprehensive safeguards agreement and an additional protocol in force. The ROK is a contracting party to all of the nuclear-related safety and security conventions. It has been a regional and global leader in assisting other countries - both directly and through the Agency - with peaceful nuclear applications in fields such as human health, agricultural productivity, water management and environmental protection.

The ROK is also a key player in the Asian Nuclear Safety Network, which aims to pool and share existing and new technical knowledge and practical experience to further improve the safety of nuclear installations in Asia. The ROK has been a pioneer in technological innovation, participating in both INPRO and the Generation IV International Forum, and making contributions such as the 330-megawatt SMART reactor under development by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.

As we look to the future, the IAEA is counting on your continued support for both aspects of our "Atoms for Peace" mission, and we stand ready to assist you in finding the solutions that are best suited to your needs and priorities.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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