The International Atomic Energy Agency

By Dufour, Joanne | Social Education, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The International Atomic Energy Agency


Dufour, Joanne, Social Education


The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II inaugurated a new era in world history, the atomic age. After the war, the Soviet Union, eager to develop the same military capabilities as those demonstrated by the United States, soon rivaled the U.S. as an atomic and nuclear superpower. Faced by the possibility of destruction by nuclear weapons, the nations of the world expressed a keen interest in preventing their proliferation and use, and in ensuring that atomic and nuclear energy sources would be used for peaceful purposes.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in 1957 as a United Nations agency dedicated to promoting the peaceful uses of atomic and nuclear energy, and also to developing safeguards against the conversion of atomic and nuclear energy from peaceful to military use. When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was concluded in 1968, the IAEA was designated as the agency responsible for the inspection of nuclear facilities and for ensuring that countries that signed the treaty were in compliance with its provisions.

A generation later, at a time of great concern about the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the IAEA seems destined to play an increasingly important role in monitoring nuclear facilities and equipment, and in overseeing the destruction of unauthorized weapons programs. After the first Gulf War of 1991, the Security Council assigned the IAEA the responsibility of dismantling Iraq's nuclear program. From the lack of evidence of Iraqi nuclear capabilities following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the agency seems to have done an effective job.

This article examines the origins of the IAEA and its continuing importance, and describes the activities of the agency in four countries of great interest: Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya. The article also answers some basic questions about nuclear programs, and recommends web-based resources for studying the problem of proliferation.

The International Arms Race

Despite the end of the Cold War, world security is still threatened both by nuclear proliferation and by the use of conventional weapons. Here are some key aspects of the current world military build-up.

* In 1945, only one nation possessed an atom bomb. Today, there are five officially recognized nuclear weapons states (the United States, the Russian Federation, France, China, and the United Kingdom). Two other countries have successfully tested nuclear weapons (India and Pakistan), and two more can be considered nuclear powers (Israel and North Korea). Libya and Iran have also established nuclear programs.

* About 28,800 warheads are still stockpiled by the United States and Russia. Many are on high alert. Of the estimated 128,000 nuclear warheads built worldwide since 1945, all but 2 percent have been built by the United States (55 percent) and Russia (43 percent). (1)

* In the 1990s, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Empire; the rivalry between the East and the West appeared to have ended. This helped achieve significant gains in the area of disarmament. A comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty was concluded in 1996 that bans all nuclear explosions for military or civil purposes; a convention banning landmines was written in 1997; (2) and another convention banning production, use or stockpiling of chemical weapons went into force also in 1997.

* Today, 80 percent of the world's spending on armaments is on conventional weapons and weapons systems. The United States accounts for almost half of the world's total arms production: France and the United Kingdom for 10 percent each; and Germany, Russia and Japan for roughly 4 percent each. The number of nuclear weapons dropped by almost half after the end of the Cold War.

* World military expenditures peaked at over $1 trillion per year in 1989 toward the end of the Cold War. …

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The International Atomic Energy Agency
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