If you had walked out of the signing of the United Nations Charter on June 26th, 1945 and taken a bicycle ride south and then east along US40 for roughly six hours per day, in three weeks you could have shown up in Socorro, New Mexico on July 16th to witness the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as a transnational organization affiliated with the United Nations (UN) by special relationship, represents the operationalization of a bargain, and the attendant dilemma of nuclear energy.1Fischer, D. (1997). History of the International Atomic Energy Agency (pp. 1–564). IAEA. First deployed destructively, but recognized as well for its enormous non-destructive potential, nuclear energy technology seems bound to proliferate. Its peaceful uses, energy, medicine, research, agriculture, e.g., are indelibly linked to its destructive capacity. A country that can use nuclear energy peacefully can divert components of that process, material and knowledge to military, and thus geostrategic purposes. The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) expresses this dilemma in Articles I-IV, summarized in these three principles:

  1. States without nuclear weapons will not acquire them;
  2. States with nuclear weapons will pursue disarmament;
  3. All states can access nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, under safeguards.2Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. July 1, 1968. 729 UNTS 161; 7 ILM 8809 (1968); 21 UST 483

The IAEA, as a component of a multifaceted nonproliferation regime serves as the source of a positive incentive for the first principle of the NPT by being an international facilitator for the third principle. It also serves principle one as the “world’s foremost nuclear-proliferation detective,”.3Goldblat, J. (1999). Incentives Provided for in Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements. In T. Bernauer (Ed.), The Politics of Positive Incentives in Arms Control (pp. 47–72). Columbia, S.C: Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. The as-of-yet failure of nuclear weapons states (NWS) to satisfy principle two by completely disarming is a common criticism of the nonproliferation regime. In 1968 between the five declared NWS’ there were roughly 39,000 nuclear weapons, mostly in the United States. The number of weapons peaked in 1986 at almost seventy thousand but has been falling ever since. Known nuclear weapons counts reached parity with 1968 levels around 1995.4Norris, R. S., & Kristensen, H. M. (2015). Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945–2010. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 66(4), 77–83. http://doi.org/10.2968/066004008 Principle two, disarmament remains an unreached goal, and as such the NPT remains a debatably successful treaty. Violations of principle one and 40 years without meeting principle two give the NPT a mixed record. Treaties must often be accepted as aspirational, and still worth pursuing given the alternative.

An alternative view on the soundness of the bargain that Eisenhower set into motion requires one to balance those gaps against the record of peaceful use. One hundred and ninety countries have signed the NPT. Only four, India, Pakistan, Israel and South Sudan, haven’t. There have been a small number of violations, and only one successful cheater: North Korea. There are 451 operational nuclear power generation facilities in the world and “hundreds” of other known reactors at research facilities, universities or in ships around the world.5World Nuclear Association. (2016). Number of nuclear reactors operable and under construction. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from http://www.world-nuclear.org/nuclear-basics/global-number-of-nuclear-reactors.aspx

The IAEA as a transnational organization serves a highly technical, extremely valuable, and politically sensitive function. As the world’s authority on nuclear safeguards verification, IAEA inspectors are often required to penetrate states’ most sensitive facilities, and then to evaluate a government’s honesty before the General Assembly or the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The gravity of its responsibilities, its balance of successes and notable failures make its performance and design the regular subject of intense politicization. At a time when nuclear energy appears to be a stagnant or declining industry, but nuclear proliferation a clandestinely attractive enterprise, the IAEA’s future is tied to the attractiveness of that Sisyphean bargain: to thwart the weapons proliferation, one must proliferate nuclear prosperity.    


For the two decades between 1947 and 1968 nuclear weapons technology spread around the world as fast as could be expected given the technical challenges and secrecy imposed by its possessors. As the United States quickly learned, secrecy is a poor guarantor against proliferation. In the years that followed the first two uses of nuclear weapons in war, presidents, ministers and party chairmen collaborated to establish an international regime that would control the diffusion of nuclear technology around the world. Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 1953called for the body to acknowledge a future with nuclear technology, for ill or good, and unite around managing the provision of nuclear fuel and nuclear technology.6Fischer, D. (1997). History of the International Atomic Energy Agency (pp. 1–564). IAEA. He hoped to prevent a rapid global buildup of independent nuclear research and development efforts; indeed he called for eventual disarmament of all nuclear weapons. After a few years of unrelated and faltering efforts,7Fischer discusses the unsuccessful Baruch Plan, McMahon Act, and proposals by Dean Acheson and Alexander Gromyko that preceded Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech. (p. 18-22) in late 1956 the body of twelve8USA, USSR, Czechoslovakia, UK, France, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Belgium, Portugal, Brazil, India. (Fischer p. 30, 35) countries that negotiated the original statute came together with another sixty-nine members at the sixth UN General Conference to sign it. In summer of 1957, the statute would come into force and the IAEA would be launched in Vienna.9Fischer, D. (1997). History of the International Atomic Energy Agency (pp. 1–564). IAEA.

It is somewhat counter-intuitive to discover that the IAEA antecedes the Treaty on Nuclear Nonproliferation by decade, but the other major components of the modern nonproliferation regime—Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Nuclear Weapons Free Zones, and the Missile Technology Control Regime—came later.10Cirincione, J. (2000). Repairing the Regime: Stopping the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. (J. Cirincione, Ed.). New York: Routledge., p. Appendix I All of these evolved into formal institutions over the span of forty years since the IAEA statute came into force. As noted earlier the IAEA isn’t the sole organization responsible for addressing nuclear weapons proliferation, or even proliferation of peaceful nuclear energy uses; it advocates for the latter as part of a gambit to prevent the former. The three treaties listed by Joseph Cirincione as critical components of the regime represent varying political preferences that in turn push and pull on the IAEA.

The IAEA’s statute negotiations show that the delegations of non-aligned states saw in nuclear energy an opportunity for prestige, growth and national advancement, but saw the safeguards provisions, (efforts to prevent the military diversion of fissile material from peaceful reactors), as neo-colonialist. There are arguments still that the complexity and cost of safeguards create an onerous barrier to entry for middle or developing countries wishing to develop indigenous nuclear or radioisotope technical capacities. In order to take advantage of the nuclear cooperation the IAEA was expected to provide, new states pursuing nuclear technology through the IAEA would have to undertake invasive safeguards inspections that might reveal a clandestine nuclear program. It became clear that this would harden the reality of nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’.11Roehrlich, E. (2016). The Cold War, the developing world, and the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 1953–1957. Cold War History, 16(2), 195–212. http://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2015.1129607 The Indian delegation expressed:

[If] a large part of the world is subject to controls and the other free of them, we will stand on the brink of a dangerous era sharply dividing the world into atomic ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ dominated by the Agency. Such a division would in itself, by creating dangerous tensions, defeat the very purpose of the safeguards, that is, to build a secure and peaceful world.

Roehrlich, E. (2016)12Roehrlich, E. (2016). The Cold War, the developing world, and the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 1953–1957. Cold War History, 16(2), 195–212. http://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2015.1129607

The NPT mirrors the IAEAs political arrangement in favor of this structure. Between the creation of the two regime components, two more states would become nuclear powers: France in 1960, and China in 1964. The Western powers lobbied to keep the IAEA from being a direct UN body out of fear that the General Assembly would use the IAEA to “expand unduly the IAEA’s technical aid,” and fought for “as much autonomy as possible for the IAEA so as to insulate it from the political issues — the drive against the colonial powers and against the racist policies of South Africa,” prevailing at that time.13Fischer, D. (1997). History of the International Atomic Energy Agency (pp. 1–564). IAEA. In contrast the CTBT was “concluded under UN auspices,” and it is unsurprising that the US Senate was unwilling to ratify it.14Karns, M. P. (2017). A Pivotal Moment in Global Governance? Global Governance: a Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 23(3), 329–347. Nuclear Weapons Free Zones are also a project largely of the global south. The position of the IAEA between all of these explicitly political components of the nuclear nonproliferation regime remains a site of competition.

It is worth noting that the list of NPT signatories is not identical with IAEA membership or clients. The IAEA can provide technical cooperation to countries that are not signatories to the NPT. As part of the larger regime, the IAEA can serve as negotiating carrot, offering to help states develop modern energy, do research or any number of sub-services, and thus drawn them into, or closer to the spirit of nonproliferation. It can also be a stick. Those proliferators that have faced IAEA inspectors namely (Iran, Iraq and North Korea), have had mixed success attempting to have international support for nuclear energy development and run a clandestine weapons program at the same time. Amy Smithson, in her 1999 case study of North Korean nuclear diplomacy writes, “Many experts agree that the DPRK simply underestimated the technical and analytical capabilities of the IAEA.” This was the IAEA post-Iraq. As she also notes the failure to detect the clandestine Iraqi program in their 1991 Gulf War inspections, they had been “pilloried,”.15Smithson, A. E. (1999). North Korea: A Case in Progress. In T. Bernauer (Ed.), The Politics of Positive Incentives in Arms Control (pp. 73–110). Columbia, S.C: Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. Iraq turned out to be a watershed moment for the agency. IAEA inspectors were mandated only to inspect diversion safeguards on declared sites. That is, they went where they knew nuclear facilities to be. After Iraq was found to hiding whole sites where evidence of a weapons program were stored, the discovery “drew the [UNSC] into discussion of arms control issues for the first time ever,”.16Karns, M. P. (2017). A Pivotal Moment in Global Governance? Global Governance: a Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 23(3), 329–347. The subsequent furor resulted what is called the “Additional Protocol,” which if agreed to, allows IAEA inspectors to go wherever they like if they suspect nuclear proliferation might be occurring. Increasingly it is clear to the international community that combatting nuclear proliferation means looking for needles in haystacks, and that the positive incentives that while the IAEA often represents the international face of nonproliferation, it takes the whole regime to cooperatively address this issue. Unfortunately, there is an inequality embedded in the bargain, and one that appears to be the key to great power status.

The IAEA provides a control structure through which nuclear know-how can be distributed. The Nuclear Suppliers Group provides common export controls on nuclear materials. Together they represent important transnational regulation of a market, (still largely bilateral or multilateral), that the US and USSR worked through during the Cold War. The race by those two superpowers toward the profit and political alignment that came with selling nuclear technologies abroad laid the groundwork for the IAEA to thrive. The US first bilateral Atoms for Peace deal was strategic target Turkey. For the USSR deals were struck with Eastern European states.17Roehrlich, E. (2016). The Cold War, the developing world, and the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 1953–1957. Cold War History, 16(2), 195–212. http://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2015.1129607 But because it was instituted before major disasters occurred, it is judged to be a preventative measure. Which makes failures of the regime at large tend to fall at the feet of the agency. The disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and the state-level proliferation of Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, are massive and tragic enough to set back both the growth of the nuclear energy industry and to create crises of evaluation for the regime. Are they doing a good job?

Evaluating the IAEA       

Judging whether or not the IAEA is doing a good job or not faces a number of the analytical challenges outlined by Tamar Gutner, et al. in a 2010 paper which proposes a framework for evaluating international organizations. Their principle contribution is to argue that performance metrics exist along a spectrum between “process”-oriented analysis and outcomes-oriented analysis. Of course, with the IAEA there are evaluative options all along the spectrum. The history and complexity of the organization, its changing mandate, growth, and its location or role within the nonproliferation regime make a comprehensive, or even robust analysis of IAEA performance far outside the scope of this paper. Gutner, et al., note a number of analytical challenges that all IOs face, including finding a meaningful set of metrics along their process-outcome spectrum, difficult mandates, being a participant in a global governance regime whose activities and responsibilities are spread across governments, private sector, other IOs, and even clandestine operations. The sensitivity of some of the IAEAs security and safeguards activity is extremely political and difficult for any other non-state-sponsored organizations to evaluate. Euratom is similar to the IAEA and ostensibly could act as a backstop against IAEA corruption but by and large the IAEA is in a world of its own. As noted above, evaluating the IAEA fairly, by comprehensively operationalizing IAEA behavior while accounting for the daunting array of analytical challenges laid out by Gutner et al., is beyond the scope of this paper. However, there is some literature that addresses a few topics raised above: issues associated with the “bargain,” and neo-colonialist claims.

Perhaps because the IAEA has existed for most of the duration of controlled nuclear energy, or that it is seen as the most competent source of nuclear safety and security, breeches, disasters, and most failures of the nuclear non-proliferation regime are laid at its feet as evidence of the need for dramatic reform. When each case is examined more closely, far fewer of the failures are due to the IAEAs performance along the lines of its mandate and budget. It becomes terrifyingly clear that at best, the IAEA has a tiger by the tail. A 2011 paper by Richard Weitz opens, “The disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that began on March 11th has again underscored both the importance and the limited capabilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency,”.[mnf]Weitz, R. (2011). Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Security. World Affairs, 174(4), 56–66.[/mfn] He goes on to point to the “failure to detect” Libya’s nuclear weapons activity, the “inadequate authority” the IAEA faced with respect to Iran’s program, being outwitted by Iraq, and Chernobyl. The Iraq and North Korea cases are also taken up in detail by Roberts 18Roberts, P. S. (2014). How Well Will the International Atomic Energy Agency Be Able to Safeguard More Nuclear Materials in More States? In H. D. Sokolski (Ed.), Moving Beyond Pretense: Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation (pp. 265–302). Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press., Smithson,19Smithson, A. E. (1999). North Korea: A Case in Progress. In T. Bernauer (Ed.), The Politics of Positive Incentives in Arms Control (pp. 73–110). Columbia, S.C: Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press., and many others. Weitz’s criticisms are coupled with the admission that failures like those at Fukushima and Chernobyl are the product of the voluntary nature of private firms deviating from safeguards. Weitz notes,

In the area of nuclear safety, individual member countries are currently responsible for the safety of their nuclear activities, although they can draw on IAEA expertise and other assets. In the case of an accident, the agency can offer resources, but the affected governments can decide whether to use these assets. Although many agency-supported nuclear safety conventions exist, membership in them is typically voluntary.

20Weitz, R. (2011). Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Security. World Affairs, 174(4), 56–66.

Weitz’s remedy of course is to strengthen the IAEA. Loopholes and weakness in the IAEAs scope were highlighted by the Iraq case. Smithson’s commentary on Iraq (see above) points not to a failure of process (as Gutner would call it), but in outcome in that the IAEA is expected to catch violations of the NPT. The charge is a bit unfair of course since the agency had no provisions for going anywhere off the “declared” path. Not only was the IAEA hamstrung in terms of its rights to inspect, but it also lacks the broad detection capacities of state-level intelligence agency. It is not a spy network. As Roberts notes, “The IAEA often relies on state intelligence agencies to provide satellite and other sensitive data” .21Roberts, P. S. (2014). How Well Will the International Atomic Energy Agency Be Able to Safeguard More Nuclear Materials in More States? In H. D. Sokolski (Ed.), Moving Beyond Pretense: Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation (pp. 265–302). Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press. If it weren’t for multiple state-level intelligence agencies, the IAEA would not likely have caught Iran’s program. Roberts claims that the IAEA was given the evidence of Iranian collaboration with a former Soviet scientist in 2011 by these agencies. Iran claimed that the IAEA was being used as a political tool.

Libya, Iraq, Iran, Russia, the US, Japan, and North Korea have all been signatories of the NPT. All but North Korea still are, and the only reason the DPRK withdrew, is because it was caught cheating and preferred its program to any further technical assistance. The US, Japan and Russia have not cheated the NPT, but have had notable nuclear accidents. The others illustrate the core concern about the bargain the NPT offers. The IAEA is available to provide technical assistance to states who will establish nuclear energy programs. Most of the nuclear technology and fuel will be provided by firms, guided by the rules of individual states. This intersection means that the ability to detect diversion of enriched uranium, plutonium, or dual-use technology to a clandestine nuclear weapons program, is only as good as the weakest link in the security and safeguards chain. Hundreds, if not thousands of reactors are out there. As Roberts points out,

Nuclear power will likely spread to new countries and new kinds of facilities in the coming years. Even a modest expansion of nuclear power will require more safeguards inspections, which at the very least raises budgeting problems for the agency. Even if money were no obstacle, however, it is not clear that the agency could simply scale up its operations to meet new demands.

Roberts, P.S. (2014)22Roberts, P. S. (2014). How Well Will the International Atomic Energy Agency Be Able to Safeguard More Nuclear Materials in More States? In H. D. Sokolski (Ed.), Moving Beyond Pretense: Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation (pp. 265–302). Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press.

Much like Weitz, Roberts concludes his analysis that something more must be done, that reforms must bring greater risk of serious consequences to countries that violate their agreements.

Nuclear proliferation and nuclear accidents, per incident activate our nightmares and give energy to our fearful mythologies about atomic energy. But much like airplanes, the horror of a singular tragedy masks the otherwise amazing record of benefit. The argument of whether or not the IAEA needs to be strengthened, more intrusive, more punitive is mixed. David Fischer argues that the notion that the IAEA’s technical assistance programs contribute to proliferation is based on mistaken information about the nature of the assistance. He argues against a “false dichotomy” between the agency’s regulatory and promotional roles. He also notes quite specifically that the promotional work “…has been to promote the transfer of radioisotope and radiation techniques to the developing countries rather than to promote the use of nuclear power,” and that, “There is no conflict of principle or interest between helping to eradicate rinderpest and trying to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.”

Another study points to a different conclusion. Robert Brown and Jeffrey Kaplow studied quantitatively the relationship between receiving IAEA technical cooperation (TC) on fuel-cycle projects and the likelihood that a country will pursue or achieve nuclear weapons production capability. As you might guess, the correlation is positive and statistically significant. It is also somewhat indirect. Brown and Kaplow quote David Fischer (the same text already used here), when noting that the IAEA limited its fuel-cycle assistance after 1977. What they conclude is that higher-levels of fuel-cycle TC correlate with the higher levels of state decisions to pursue a weapons program.23Brown, R. L., & Kaplow, J. M. (2014). Talking Peace, Making Weapons. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58(3), 402–428. http://doi.org/10.1177/0022002713509052 This study appeared in 2014 and has serious implications for the future of the NPT bargain. It suggests that the fear that proliferation of peaceful energy is at odds with the desire to prevent weapons proliferation, at least in the instances where that assistance is related to the fuel cycle. It is worth noting that this assistance is largely going to likely come from private firms, operating through state-level constraints, and the IAEA is in no position to police them. For example, while the US was able to secure a “gold standard 123 agreement” with United Arab Emirates recently, it is struggling to do so with Saudi Arabia. The gold standard 123 agreement controls the delivery of nuclear fuel for use in reactors and bars the signatory from enriching or reprocessing.24Einhorn, R. (2018, January 12). US-Saudi civil nuclear negotiations: finding a practical compromise – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Retrieved October 15, 2018.


The IAEA as a transnational organization is best considered technical organization whose capabilities are significant enough, that they struggle to avoid politicization. Their role as a control structure for nuclear energy know-how binds them to the bargain, or dilemma of the NPT, as yet the most successful non-proliferation treaty to date. Because of the lure of nuclear weapons and the political power they grant, as well as the seemingly unstoppable diffusion of technology and technological prowess, the warrant of the NPT, and the charge of the IAEA to both help advocate for the peaceful use of nuclear and radiological technologies, while also fighting proliferation through safeguards, security, and expanding inspection regime mean that they will be at the center of a contentious, if not Sisyphean challenge for decades to come.