Atomic Dogs

Why can't the world's nuclear energy watchdog do anything about Fukushima or Iran's weapons program? I went to find out.


The Incident and Emergency Center of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is on the eighth floor of the organization’s headquarters building in Vienna. It is a low-ceilinged room, with a small conference table and a handful of cubicles, that somehow manages to be claustrophobic despite its expansive views toward the center of the city — one set of windows looks down on the IAEA’s plaza, where over 100 national flags line a fountain; the other looks across the Danube. It was a gray and stately vista of European order the day I visited.

For almost two months following Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a still-unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the room was staffed around the clock by 230 IAEA staff members working in shifts. I asked Elena Buglova, the Incident and Emergency Center’s (IEC’s) director, what they had accomplished during their 24/7 alert. "We did accomplish the activities of the IEC in line with the plans and procedures agreed in advance, which were known to member states, which were known to the competent authorities," she said. These are some of the plans and procedures Buglova followed, which she showed me on a slide: Fundamental Safety Principles; Governmental, Legal and Regulatory Framework for Safety; Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency; Arrangements for Preparedness for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency; and, lastly, the Criteria for Use in Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency.

But for all this preparedness, even as the Fukushima Daiichi plant leaked a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere, all Yukiya Amano, the IAEA’s head, could do was relay reassuring messages from the Japanese government, bound as he was by IAEA regulations limiting his authority. Even Buglova couldn’t tell me what any of this had actually accomplished.

I was in Vienna for the IAEA’s annual General Conference — a chance for the ambassadors of the 151 IAEA member states to take stock of the past year and make plans for the next. Assorted VIPs also make an appearance, including U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the highest-ranking American official there.

In a week in Vienna I heard exactly one person — George Felgate, head of the World Association of Nuclear Operators — express some sense of responsibility for the disaster. "Did we fail? Yes, we did," Felgate said, referring to the Fukushima plant’s lack of preparation for a massive tsunami and the resulting loss of electrical power. By contrast, Amano’s opening statement went directly to the public reaction: "[Fukushima] caused deep public anxiety throughout the world and damaged confidence in nuclear power," he said. Amano’s attitude was not one of contrition, but rather was directed at how to assuage public fears, the implication being that such fears stem from ignorance and could not possibly be well-founded.

Can the IAEA prevent the next Fukushima? Can it prevent the spread of nuclear weapons? I’d come to find out the answer to these questions. And the answer, which saddened me and should sadden you, is no. The story of the IAEA is a story of good intentions getting tangled in officiousness. It is a place where the dominant culture prevents smart people from taking risks. Its mandate is limited by law, but also by an attitude that revels in these limitations.

The week-long conference began on Monday morning, Sept. 19. For the next three days, each member state made its statement, with sessions sometimes going late into the night. Without fail, each of these would ritually include congratulations to the conference’s new president, Romanian diplomat Cornel Feruta; condolences to the people and government of Japan; and then a welcome to the new IAEA members: Commonwealth of Dominica, the Kingdom of Tonga, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. (There was some confusion when Mozambique’s energy minister mixed up Dominica and the Dominican Republic.)

None of these countries was joining the IAEA because of its interest in preventing proliferation. They were after the IAEA’s main fringe benefit — easier access to nuclear technology. And herein lies part of the problem: The IAEA has two mandates that often come into direct conflict. The first is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The second is to encourage the spread of nuclear energy and other peaceful uses of nuclear technology. In broad terms, poor countries want to give priority to the second goal and rich countries want the first. The result is an organization that does the second adequately well — rich countries are happy to be exporters of energy technology — but that is failing at the first.

No country that has ever been determined to get nuclear weapons has failed in doing so because of the IAEA’s intervention; it can, at best, cause delays. And the countries that have given up nuclear weapons — Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine — did so not because of the IAEA’s enforcement capacity, but because of political considerations. This failure is for several reasons. The first is that it is extremely difficult to control the spread of technology. Many bomb-making tools have so-called "dual uses" (meaning both civilian and weaponization utilities). For instance, the precision machining tools used to create, say, currency engraving plates could also be used to shape a bomb. Thus, keeping technology from a country determined to create a bomb, even a poor and backward one like North Korea, is next to impossible. But the failure also stems from the fact that most IAEA members are more interested in acquiring peaceful nuclear technology than in curtailing new nuclear powers.

Indeed, as much as the IAEA wants to paint itself as a technical agency, it is, by its nature, political. Whether it is Israel or Iran, the United States or Egypt, most member states have a basically identical goal: Each is concerned with its own national interest, which mostly involves keeping the agency weak. Giving the agency enforcement powers (to do what it is actually tasked to do) would involve ceding some measure of sovereignty, and for different reasons, nobody wants to do this. Much better to make pro forma statements and applaud.

There were reminders of the inherent futility of the IAEA’s mission throughout its headquarters. Along the main auditorium’s left wall was a small sign that says "Financial Contributions." In front of the sign was a table with a tray of chocolate coins, there to encourage delegates from delinquent countries to pay their dues. By Thursday, the coins were gone. I didn’t see who ate them. At the conference’s outset, 14 countries had had their voting privileges suspended for nonpayment; five more were on negotiated payment plans, their dues having been restructured.

In the rotunda, between the cafeteria and the main conference room, a number of countries had set up booths. The first one was by the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission (slogan: "Reliability, Development, Sustainability"), which was facing off with the U.S. exhibit ("Resilience, Responsibility, Results"). Right now, the Lebanese program is reliably and sustainably pretty small, employing 70 people to do things such as environmental monitoring and border security, which is surely just how the United States and Israel like it.

Walking down the corridor between them, I came to what the United States and the IAEA have spent so much time, money, and effort trying to keep track of: an Iranian uranium centrifuge. The shiny metallic IR-1 was a little bit taller than I am and looked somewhat like an elongated keg of beer, with a thin helix running around it, just big enough that one might attempt rolling a gumball down. It was the same model that the computer virus Stuxnet ruined at Iran’s Natanz facility.

"The world has a great fear of these things," said Hossein Haji, the friendly but reticent proprietor of the booth. "But it is like any other machine." (It seemed like the wrong moment to mention that other machines aren’t able to produce nuclear explosives.) Right next to a centrifuge was a table with about 10 small pellets of uranium reactor fuel, each about half the size of a AA battery — radioactive but harmless, unless you get a lot of them together, as in a reactor. Then there were a few sections of fuel rods, into which the pellets would be slid in a functioning reactor. And then there was a scale model of Bushehr, Iran’s first nuclear power plant, which opened on Sept. 12 after almost 35 years of delays.

Haji gave me a small box of pistachios, courtesy of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. On one side of the lid was the first part of Iran’s slogan, "Nuclear Energy for All," and on the reverse, "Nuclear Weapon for None." The slogan sums up Iran’s argument, which is in its way (regardless of what one believes as to Iran’s real intentions) correct. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which every country in the world except Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea has agreed to, is an explicit bargain. The five countries that had nuclear weapons when the treaty came into force in 1970 promised to try to get rid of their weapons, in exchange for which everybody else would promise not to develop them. This, of course, has not happened — the United States has no plans for "general and complete disarmament" any more than Iran really needs to enrich uranium to 20 percent for "research purposes."

But Israel, India, and Pakistan, despite being non-signatories to the nonproliferation treaty, are members in good standing of the IAEA. For the past year, Ansar Parvez, chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, has been the chair of the IAEA’s board of governors. If there were ever a case in point as to why the agency has no leverage with outliers and rogues, it is this: A nuclear scofflaw nation’s presidency of the board of governors is understood to be part of the normal course of business.

Like at many multilateral agencies, there is a tension between the representatives of the member states, who at least have an understanding that they are engaged in a political process, and the IAEA staffers, who see themselves as technocrats. But the technocratic pretension — that nuclear safeguards, for instance, can be disinterestedly applied — is really just a mirage. The current trend is to move away from strict accounting mechanisms (such as looking at the amount of nuclear material that goes into and out of a reactor) and toward drawing conclusions about whether anything nefarious is taking place at the state level.

But this means making a political decision about a state’s intensions. For instance, if Iran refined uranium to, say, 90 percent U-235 — high enough for a bomb — but didn’t build a weapon, it would quite reasonably be seen by the West as provocative, but it would not be in violation of any of Iran’s agreements with the IAEA. The agreements basically say that you can do anything short of building a weapon, as long as you tell the IAEA about it. The West’s claim then is simply that Iran is doing things behind the IAEA’s back — which does seem to be the case, as in the enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom, which was built by Iran in secret.

But with such a lack of clarity and with a weak-willed IAEA, it all continues to be more tough talk than anything else. In his statement to the conference, Chu, the U.S. energy secretary, said that Iran has "continued to engage in a long-standing pattern of denial, deceit, and evasion, in violation of its nonproliferation obligations." He continued: "The international community must send a strong message that violations of nuclear nonproliferation obligations will not be tolerated." What this means, besides do as we say — or else — is not clear.

Unsurprisingly, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, shrugged and told me that the conference was an "unfortunate failure because of the unwillingness of the nuclear weapons states to compromise. They cannot get their way through pressuring everybody."

On Thursday, with the three days of interminable speeches finally out of the way, hopes were high that the assembled parties could finally get down to business and pass some measures. They had come up with an "Action Plan" to enhance nuclear safety in response to Fukushima. The plan somewhat anticlimactically proposed that "Member States … be strongly encouraged to voluntarily host IAEA peer reviews." It passed by consensus, almost unnoticed by the assembled delegates. Amano had originally wanted a stronger Action Plan that he’d pitched in June, but it had long since been stripped of its meat.

The Venezuelans then complained that the IAEA had recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council, and a resolution rebuking North Korea passed without controversy. On Thursday afternoon, the newly recognized Libyans lost out to the Egyptians for the African seat on the IAEA’s board of governors, with Algeria’s ambassador protesting that she didn’t want the one vote for Algeria to be counted — she would rather have zero.

Then, on Friday morning, the Arabs complained about Israel’s nuclear weapons, but refrained from putting forward a resolution expressing their complaints, as they had in past years. But there was a vote on applying the agency’s "safeguards" — the inspections, cameras, and seals, among other measures that are the agency’s tools for preventing proliferation — across the Middle East as a whole. Of course, this was aimed at Israel, the only country in the region that isn’t subject to the IAEA’s inspections. One-hundred and thirteen countries voted in favor, and no one voted against, but there were eight abstentions — Israel and the United States, along with Canada, Colombia, Botswana, Uganda, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said that Washington didn’t abstain lightly. "Efforts to single out one country for criticism," he said, "will stand in the way of progress." Once again, it was politics as usual.

Finally, late on Friday night, Feruta returned to the dais and said, "Good afternoon, distinguished delegates. It’s disco time. You can see that the light is going down." He was reconvening the plenary session six hours late, having failed to get the delegates to agree on the conference’s main counterproliferation measure: strengthening the system of safeguards. But a number of countries without nuclear weapons wanted to add a clause calling on nuclear powers to disarm, which of course, the nuclear powers would not accept.

Feruta reminded everyone that it wasn’t too late to make their contribution to the technical cooperation fund, but the chocolate coins were long since gone and it felt like the dying moments of a public-radio fundraiser. There were audible sighs in the room when Germany’s ambassador asked for another half-hour to try to salvage the resolution. Feruta adjourned for 20 minutes, and I finally gave in and ate my stash of Iranian pistachios.

When the delegates came back, Feruta announced that there was still no agreement. He then thanked China for pledging 1,915,180 euros to the IAEA’s technical cooperation fund, Palau for pledging 683 euros, and Senegal for its 3,738 euros. Feruta then thanked everyone for the privilege of serving, with obvious emotion in his voice. "Where there is a will, there is a way," he said, which I guess meant that there wasn’t a will, at this conference, anyway.

He then called for a minute of silence for silent prayer or meditation, as has been customary for years (in accordance with Rule 48 of the rules of procedure). The silence lasted exactly 33 seconds. But like the IAEA’s other half-measures, it would have to be enough.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola