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5 Things About the IAEA That May Surprise You

Ed note. A nuclear deal with Iran has been struck!  This post originally appeared in April,  after the framework agreement was signed which lead to yesterday’s diplomatic breakthrough. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been in the news recently as negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran reached a framework agreement that will give the UN nuclear watchdog the crucial task of verifying Iran’s compliance with the deal–and making sure Tehran does not cheat.

While it may be pretty clear that the IAEA will be a critical player in verifying any final deal that should come together, there are a few interesting things about this particular international organization that haven’t been in the news:

1) The IAEA is the Brainchild of a Republican President 

Were one to play “Word Association” with “President Dwight D. Eisenhower,” the first words and phrases to come to mind would probably be “interstate highway system” and “military-industrial complex.”  However, he was also keenly aware of the rush to use nuclear science to innovate more powerful and terrible weapons of war, and sought to prevent it.

As such, in 1957, he stood in front of the United Nations and made a slightly less-famous speech entitled “Atoms for Peace,” in which he proposed that an “International Atomic Energy Agency” be created, under the aegis of the United Nations, to facilitate international cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, such as agriculture, medicine, and energy in the developing world.  And, thus, the IAEA was born.

2) The IAEA won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005

Along with its then-Director-General, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.

They received this prize against a very complex international backdrop: the IAEA had argued vigorously against the Bush administration’s assertion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, it was investigating Iran’s nuclear program and promoting diplomacy as the solution to combating nuclear proliferation.   Additionally, the IAEA was conducting high-profile investigations into North Korea, Libya, and the infamous A.Q. Khan nuclear trafficking operation based in Pakistan.

3) The IAEA was involved in the global response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak

Although the Ebola outbreak had no obvious atomic dimensions, the IAEA still took steps where it could to mitigate the crisis.  The organization provided specialized diagnostic equipment to Sierra Leone and undertook a longer-term project to build capacity for early detection of zoonotic diseases like Ebola that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

The IAEA, alongside the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have been working to develop a nuclear-derived technology called RT-PCR, which permits detection of Ebola within a few hours. This is far faster than other diagnostic methods, which require growing cell cultures for several days before a diagnosis can be determined. Early diagnosis is critical to increasing a victim’s chance of survival, as well as preventing the disease’s spread; the earlier patients can be isolated and treated, the fewer people they will infect.

The organization provided Sierra Leone with an RT-PCR machine, cooling systems, biosecurity equipment, diagnostic kits, and other materials to combat the spread of Ebola.

Speaking of which…

4) The IAEA does way more than safeguards and verification

Although the IAEA is perhaps best-known for its work on nuclear safeguards and verification (especially in the context of the ongoing Iran negotiations), the scope of its activities extends far beyond that.  Not only did they contribute to the fight against Ebola, but they undertake projects related to nuclear safety and security, technological cooperation, and, most importantly, the application of nuclear technologies in areas like food and agriculture, human health, water resources, and the environment.

The IAEA seeks to marshal nuclear technology in order to improve the quality of life for people around the world.  For example, the organization employed a process of seed irradiation in East Africa to induce resistance to wheat black stem rust in two varieties of wheat.  This not only provided a more secure food supply in a region very dependent on wheat, but also had a ripple effect through the education and training carried out by the IAEA in order to build local capacity to continue this work.

The IAEA also worked to develop standards for pediatric radiation oncology for low-income countries.  Given that the incidence of pediatric cancer in low- and middle-income countries is greater compared to that of high-income countries, this is a vital first step in saving the lives of children around the world–especially considering that, with proper treatment, over 70% of pediatric cancer cases are curable.

These projects represent just a small slice of the IAEA’s non-safeguards and verification work.  Evidently, the agency takes seriously its mandate to use the atom for peace and not for war.

5) The IAEA became an unexpected diplomatic battlefield during Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea

At the height of tensions between Russia and the international community over its invasion of Crimea in the spring of 2014, the IAEA became an unlikely symbol for the many and varying diplomatic complexities of the invasion.

After invading Ukraine, Russia’s delegation to the U.N. invited the IAEA to inspect two small research and training reactors of which it had gained control with its invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. This forced the issue of who has the right to invite inspections over these facilities: Russia, or Ukraine?

With Russia’s deputy representative to the U.N. declaring that “Russia has taken full responsibility for nuclear sites in the country’s new territorial entities,” Ukraine urging the IAEA not to take any actions that might even imply recognition of Russia’s land grab, and the international community, through a U.N. resolution, calling upon all nations and international organizations to refrain from doing anything that would recognize Crimea as anything but Ukrainian, the IAEA was in a tough spot.

Ultimately, the IAEA issued a statement informing Russia it would “continue to implement safeguards in accordance with the IAEA statute and international law.” This was viewed as a setback for Russia; Western diplomats especially viewed the IAEA’s invocation of “international law” as a reference to the U.N. General Assembly’s resolution to recognize Crimea as Ukrainian. Further, both reactors continued to be listed in the IAEA’s research reactor database as located in Ukraine.

Want More?

In a recent podcast episode, Mark interviews a former IAEA nuclear inspector who goes deep into the history of the IAEA, describes the IAEA’s role in a Iran nuclear deal,  and offers on-the-ground perspective of what inspections actually look like.