Yukiya Amano: One year in

By Heinz Gärtner | January 26, 2011

The mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is to facilitate peaceful uses of the atom while ensuring that its nuclear assistance is not used for military purposes — a challenging mandate that in its implementation introduces both significant benefits and risks to humankind. On one hand the agency helps member states gain access to peaceful nuclear technology; on the other, preventing nuclear proliferation remains one of its crucial activities. The agency’s past director, Mohamed ElBaradei, disagreed with the Bush administration on major nonproliferation issues, including some involving Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and he was criticized by Washington as an “activist” who was too political for the job and too soft on Iran. By the end of ElBaradei’s tenure in December 2009, Washington was looking forward to his replacement, longtime diplomat Yukiya Amano of Japan, and the accompanying transition as “a once-a-decade opportunity” to reenergize the agency.

Amano, Washington’s preferred candidate for director general job, won the IAEA board’s election to the position, but only by the slimmest of margins — exposing a general disharmony among the 35-member board. Most of the developing states had supported his opponent. Some argue that Amano’s success at the agency will depend on whether he can overcome the board’s divisions. Weeks before he even was sworn in, Amano seemed aware of the balancing act ahead of him, saying that he planned to make concessions to the G-77 group of developing states but that he would be in the US court on “every key strategic decision,” from high-level appointments to Iran’s nuclear program.

After just over a year on the job, how has Amano fared, and what does the future hold for the IAEA? Over the past year, the agency and its director general faced three major challenges: promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy while strengthening nonproliferation, improving nuclear safeguards at a time when Iran was expanding its nuclear energy program, and ensuring nuclear security and safety in an era of a nuclear growth.

Peaceful nuclear uses and strengthening nonproliferation. In December 2010, the IAEA board authorized Amano to create an IAEA-run international nuclear fuel bank for low-enriched uranium (LEU). This was a major step toward implementing a decades-old concept — one supported by ElBaradei and treated with restraint by Amano at the beginning of his term. After a long process, the fuel bank was adopted by vote — not by consensus. (Six states, all in the developing world — Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, South Africa, Tunisia, and Venezuela — issued abstentions in the December 3 vote on the LEU bank; Pakistan declined to cast any vote.) The fuel bank is intended to ensure a stable fuel supply to member nations, giving countries using (or considering) nuclear power confidence that they will be able to purchase nuclear fuel reliably and predictably.

Although this is an important initiative, there have not yet been entirely satisfying results concerning implementation, though Amano has not had much time. Members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) worry about possible restrictions on their access to nuclear materials and technology for civilian use; some view the fuel bank plan as a way to discourage developing states from building indigenous civilian nuclear capabilities. So far, the IAEA has not sufficiently addressed this underlying ambiguity. Amano must find a way to convincingly guarantee member states that they will have access to the fuel bank and that the IAEA will not cave in to political pressure to rescind their right to use it.

Amano has also said that he wants “to change the widespread perception of the Agency as simply the world’s ‘nuclear watchdog’ because it does not do justice to our extensive activities in other areas, especially in nuclear energy, nuclear applications, and technical cooperation.” This is consistent with his intention to focus less on safeguards and more on technical cooperation among the IAEA member states. Amano believes that “energy is the lifeline for prosperity and development,” and he has successfully leveraged member countries’ support to achieve sustainable development on energy, environmental, health, and agricultural projects.

Nuclear safeguards and Iran. Iran’s nuclear energy program remains the most divisive issue on the IAEA agenda, and many see it as a test for Amano. Iran has been the source of controversy since 2003, when IAEA inspections revealed that Tehran gave an incomplete declaration of its nuclear activities and was therefore in noncompliance with its IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement.

Amano continues to look for ways to engage Iran and bring it back into the fold. He has said that he must “represent the interests of Iran, as long as they involve the civilian use of nuclear energy and Teheran’s ambitions serve peaceful purposes,” and he has made clear that he wants Iran to clarify the status of its nuclear program. Yet an integrated, long-term strategy on how to better engage Iran is nowhere in sight. Were Amano to actively support this long-term goal, he would be able to prevent a serious deterioration in relations with the Arab world, where the IAEA’s treatment of Iran is perceived by some as unfair.

One way in which Amano could step up his efforts to draw Iran into talks with the IAEA is by supporting arms control initiatives in the Middle East — specifically, a nuclear-weapon-free zone. The stage has already been set for this possibility: The final document of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference underscored the importance of the establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones, especially in the Middle East. The conference also made an important link to negative security assurances, stressing the legitimate interest of non-nuclear weapon states in receiving unequivocal, legally binding assurances from nuclear weapon states not to use nuclear weapons against these zones. In addition, on September 24, 2010, the General Conference of the IAEA adopted a resolution welcoming the initiatives on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East; at the same time, however, the conference rejected a resolution that expressed “concern about the Israeli nuclear capabilities.” In reference to the defeat of the Israeli Nuclear Capabilities Resolution, Glyn Davies, the US ambassador to the IAEA, even connected the issue to the Israel-Palestine situation: “The winner here is the peace-process, the winner here is the opportunity to move forward with a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.”

The support of Amano, a citizen of the only country that has suffered nuclear attacks, for this initiative would seem natural. He could start a process of preparatory meetings and follow-up conferences based on the historic model of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, using the neutral territory of Austria, where the IAEA headquarters are located.

The IAEA has been strengthening its verification tools for years by introducing new measures, including the so-called Additional Protocol, which complements the Safeguards Agreements and grants the agency increased access to information and to nuclear sites on short notice. Amano believes it is vital that all countries with Safeguards Agreements adopt the Additional Protocol; as he said in November 2010, it not only assures that “declared nuclear material is not being diverted from peaceful uses, but also that there are no undeclared nuclear material and activities in a State.”

As of mid-December 2010, 104 states had put into force both the Additional Protocol and Safeguards Agreement; 72 had adopted the Safeguards Agreement but no Additional Protocol, and 17 non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT had not concluded Safeguards Agreements.

Iran has a Safeguards Agreement in place — but no Additional Protocol. According to Amano’s September 2010 report, Iran refuses to cooperate fully with the IAEA, defying Board of Governors and UN Security Council resolutions. Iran shunned negotiations on the nuclear swap deal in October 2009, and in June 2010, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1929, the strongest and most comprehensive set of sanctions so far to address Iranian noncompliance. Despite this, the IAEA seems to have made little progress in influencing Iran’s behavior.

Nuclear security in an era of nuclear growth. In a November 2010 talk, Amano stated that “nuclear security is a priority issue for the IAEA and for me.” Months earlier, leaders from around the world met in Washington, DC, for the April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit; the summit communiqué reaffirmed “the essential role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the international nuclear security framework” — an outcome that Amano called “a great success.”

The worldwide resurgence in nuclear energy makes the IAEA’s responsibilities in nuclear safety and security increasingly important. The IAEA will help any member state that requests assistance with improving its security, materials accounting, and physical protection measures. Among many other projects, the IAEA uses its resources to make “mega-events” safer; for example, Amano has proudly referred to the assistance the agency lent South Africa during the 2010 World Cup to protect against nuclear terrorism. The IAEA is uniquely equipped to handle such work: “We have the world’s only data collection on illicit trafficking in radioactive material,” Amano has said. “We have trained 3,000 people, and we have provided 8,000 radiation detectors.” The IAEA also cooperates with the US Global Threat Reduction Initiative to secure and repatriate radioactive nuclear material, among other things.

In December 2010, an IAEA-coordinated effort transferred highly radioactive nuclear fuel elements from Serbia to a secure Russian facility. Amano said of the project: “It was a success story and we are very happy to continue to cooperate with stakeholders to repatriate highly enriched uranium.”

Although the IAEA takes on the burden of nuclear security, Amano recognizes the reality that the agency “cannot do everything: it is the responsibility of the member States. …With proper help from the IAEA, we can make this world safer.”

Conclusion. Under Director General Yukiya Amano, the IAEA has already shifted focus. The tone of the agency’s reports on Iran has become harsher, while the emphasis on technical cooperation has become stronger. Tensions between nuclear weapon states and the NAM remain and have even become exacerbated, complicating the implementation of the nuclear fuel bank and the process of realizing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. These tensions are to a large extent due to the different, often contradictory, interests of the member states; it is Amano’s task to reconcile them, but certain differences — between the IAEA and member states, or between member states themselves — are bound to remain.

The IAEA membership includes both non-nuclear and nuclear weapon states; most are also NPT members, but a few are not (India, Pakistan, and Israel). IAEA member states also have different Safeguards Agreements, and some implement the Additional Protocol while others do not. This inherent diversity means that there can be no truly uniform treatment across the IAEA membership. To manage the conflicts that arise from these differences, some ambiguity on the part of Amano and the agency is essential. If the different treatment of member states becomes too obvious (although the IAEA statute stresses their “equal sovereignty”), then the cooperation of the member states will diminish, and the agency’s effectiveness will decrease.

The new director general deserves some credit in promoting cooperation in key areas of nuclear science and technology (such as the new Water Availability Enhancement Project). But the IAEA — and the broader nonproliferation community — would benefit from a specific outline of Amano’s intended activities, which could include certain issues that would receive a broad range of support from nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, such as the creation of new nuclear-weapon-free zones.

Nuclear disarmament is not on the IAEA’s agenda, but Amano should support this goal in his personal capacity; in doing so, he could gain the confidence of the NAM states, which in turn would be more open to accept a stronger system of safeguards.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on January 27, 2011.

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