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The International Atomic Energy Agency at 50

This summer’s 50th anniversary of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) founding offers an opportunity for stocktaking about the world’s most important nuclear watchdog. It comes at a time when the Agency has assumed increasing responsibility for nuclear security. The recent dispatch of inspectors to verify the shutdown of North Korea’s weapons reactor and the continuing efforts to ferret out Iran’s nuclear intentions are only the most visible signs of its monitoring function.

But, while there is much to celebrate, questions remain about whether the IAEA can increase its capacity both to combat proliferation and promote nuclear power plant safety. History suggests that without greater authority, the Agency will be incapable of dramatically reducing global nuclear risks.

The IAEA traces its lineage to the early dark days of the Cold War. In his December 1953 UN General Assembly “Atoms for Peace” address, US President Dwight Eisenhower sought to relax atomic weapons competition with the Soviet Union by calling for the creation of an international nuclear fuel bank stocked with superpower fissile material. Management would come from a new global nuclear organization. Although the fuel bank never emerged, the seed for the organization took root, giving rise to the IAEA in 1957.

In time, the IAEA became a nuclear brain bank, assisting developing countries with their peaceful nuclear needs. It educated nuclear operators, generated safety and protection standards, promoted the benefits of the atom for industry, agriculture, and medicine, and much more. In 1970, boosted by the new Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the IAEA acquired expanded authority to safeguard nuclear elements against diversion. Today, this responsibility extends to more than 180 countries.