International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Established in 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an independent intergovernmental organization tasked by the United Nations to monitor nuclear technology related matters. In 1979 the U.N. assigned the IAEA the task of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) monitoring and for developing nuclear safeguards. In addition to monitoring activities, IAEA attempts to facilitate the safe and peaceful use of nuclear power for the generation of electricity and to assist health agencies in developing standards that protect against detrimental ionizing radiation. IAEA scientists and engineers offer specific advice regarding the safe operation of nuclear power stations and the disposal of radioactive waste.

With a staff of nearly 3000, including more than 600 field inspectors, IAEA currently serves 134 member states and maintains its headquarters in Vienna, Austria. As of May 2003, Mohamed El Baradei was serving as director-general of IAEA.

Nuclear detection technologies (many developed by the United States national laboratory system) allow IAEA inspectors to attempt to enhance security of nuclear materials and to deter the unintentional transfer of nuclear materials and nuclear technology to terrorists or nations seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Limitations of the IAEA. The IAEA has no enforcement authority and compliance with IAEA inspections is voluntary; enforcement actions must be mandated by the United Nations Security Council.

Scientists also criticize the fact that IAEA leadership is composed of former civil servants or diplomats rather than scientists. Despite an expert staff of scientists, political forces have sometimes thwarted IAEA inspectors. The IAEA has suffered notable failures, including the discovery of Iraqi nuclear weapons development facilities in the early 1990s after declarations by the then IAEA chief, Hans Blix, that Iraq had no viable nuclear weapons program.

IAEA monitors selected industrial processes, namely enrichment plants, fuel-fabrication facilities, and reprocessing facilities; but military nuclear materials are not tracked by the IAEA. Accordingly, the civil inventories of the largest nuclear-power states (i.e., the United States, United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia) are not subject to IAEA safeguards. Approximately 24 tons of weapon-grade plutonium and uranium—less than 1% of the world stock—is safeguarded by IAEA. Although a small percentage, this material is critical because it could produce hundreds of nuclear weapons. Moreover, intelligence experts consider the IAEA monitored sites to be among those sites most vulnerable to potential diversion of nuclear materials.

IAEA actions. Following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine) IAEA inspectors and technical teams helped stabilize the damaged reactor. IAEA continued its role at Chernobyl to include the ongoing decommissioning of the facility.

IAEA inspectors took a lead role in controversial inspections programs in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

In 1991, IAEA's Iraq Action Team began inspecting suspect sites in Iraq under U.N. Security Council mandate. IAEA's mandate in Iraq was two-fold: uncover and dismantle Iraq's clandestine nuclear program, and manage an ongoing monitoring and verification plan (OMV). Prior to the invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led Coalition forces in March 2003, El Baradei, reported to the U.N. that Iraq had apparently been unable to successfully reconstitute its nuclear weapons program following its destruction and dismantling in the early 1990s.

IAEA inspectors have been consistently frustrated in their attempts to deal with North Korea. In 1999, IAEA officials reported to the United Nations Security Council that "critical parts" of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon had been unaccounted for since 1994. Missing parts included those needed to control nuclear reactions and/or those that would be needed to construct another nuclear reactor. Special requests for inspections continued to be rejected by North Korea and in April 1993, the IAEA reissued its early 1990s ruling that North Korea was in "non-compliance" with its agreements regarding nuclear inspection and safeguards. IAEA inspectors further concluded that their limited inspections could not provide "meaningful assurance" that North Korea was using its nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes (e.g., only for energy generation or authorized research).

Concerned that Iran was attempting to accelerate its nuclear programs in such a way as to facilitate nuclear weapon development, in late 2002, IAEA inspectors requested additional access to inspect Iranian facilities. IAEA requests were initially denied. In February 2003, however, IAEA inspectors, including IAEA chief inspector Mohamed El Baradei were permitted to visit several new nuclear sites in Iran.

Since 1993, the IAEA has reported more than 400 cases of trafficking in nuclear materials. While 18 cases involved plutonium or weapons-grade uranium, most cases involved low-level medical and industrial radioactive waste, the kind used in dirty bombs.



IAEA News Update on IAEA and North Korea. IAEA. < > (March 10, 2003).

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 2003. < > (April 2, 2003).

Lu, Ming-Shih. "The IAEA Strengthened International Safeguards System." Brookhaven National Laboratory. 1998. < > (April 2, 2003).


Iranian Nuclear Programs
Iraq War: Prelude to War (The International Debate Over the Use and Effectiveness of Weapons Inspections)
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Nonproliferation and National Security, United States
North Korean Nuclear Weapons Programs
Nuclear Power Plants, Security
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), United States
Russian Nuclear Materials, Security Issues
Weapon-Grade Plutonium and Uranium, Tracking

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