Amid deadlocked voting to chose ElBaradei successor, Bellona expert questions need for IAEA

Publish date: March 26, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

Officials from 35 nations failed in three rounds of initial voting on Thursday to choose a successor to Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

A Bellona nuclear industry expert, however, has strongly called into question the purpose behind the protracted process of selecting a new head for an agency whose two mandates undermine each other, and called for a drastic rethinking of continuing the agency’s work.

In his estimation, the agency has little utility in either enforcing environmentally sound principles or in stopping the inevitable march of nuclear proliferation, which has, under ElBaradei’s watch, become an even more acute international problems.

Yukiya Amano, Japan’s IAEA ambassador favored largely by Western nations prevailed over his South African counterpart Abdul Samad Minty, securing 21-14, 20-15 and 20-15 in the three secret ballots held in voting, but failed to secure the necessary 2/3 majority to win the post.

Chairwoman of the agency’s 35-member board of governors, Taous Feroukhi, told reporters that “we were not able at this stage” to elect a successor to ElBaradei, whose term expires in November.

Deadlock between haves and have-nots likely to continue
The stalemate underlined a deep split between industrialized and developing states represented on the UN nuclear watchdog’s board of governors and will prompt a search for alternative candidates if further voting on today is inconclusive.

ElBaradei, 66, has held the post since 1997, when he took over from Hans Blix of Sweden.

A prolonged delay in choosing a new director-general would be damaging to the agency, given a growing list of challenges to the agency’s credibility, including controversial nuclear activity in Iran and Syria and a serious funding shortage.

"I reckon the chances of deadlock tomorrow are 90 percent," a European diplomat said in an email interview with BellonaWeb after the closed-door polling. Another diplomat said: "A stalemate is more likely than not."

The agency plays a central role in monitoring and investigating charges of illicit nuclear proliferation and promoting atomic energy for peaceful purposes.

Bellona expert suggests disbanding the agency
It is on this point that Bellona nuclear industry expert Igor Kudrik has questioned the usefulness of the agency at all and sees little possibility for a change in the agency’s mission regardless of who is in charge.

Among the more controversial measures the agency is currently supporting are an international uranium fuel bank, as well as an effort to contain spent nuclear fuel from many nations on the territory of a few – points that Bellona fundamentally disagrees with.

“Spreading the use of nuclear energy is the main task of the IAEA. Non-proliferation only came later. And the IAEA still tries to spread the use of nuclear energy while at the same time trying to prod nations observe non-proliferation,” two goals that are at cross purposes, said Kudrik.

Instead of labouring over choosing a new head, Kudrik said the agency should be dissolved.

“Why should we have the IAEA?” said Kudrik. “What we need to do is disband the IAEA and create an agency that is responsible for nonproliferation.”

Fuel bank plans suggest environmental dangers
The biggest efforts the IAEA has recently made toward controlling worldwide nuclear proliferation has been to support – like many other nonproliferation experts in the West, especially the United States – the creation of a uranium reactor fuel processing bank.

The purpose of such a bank would be to offer uranium fuel to countries that wish to pursue nuclear energy, but that have no indigenous uranium enrichment capabilities. The second goal would be to lock out so-called rogue nations from the customer list.

Yet the responsibility of hosting such a bank carries dark environmental ramifications for any country that would volunteer. Implicit in the notion of a fuel bank is reprocessing spent nuclear fuel – one of the most radioactively dangerous processes in the nuclear fuel cycle – as well as accepting spent nuclear fuel from other countries.

Russia’s starry-eyed dreams for hosting the bank
One country that is anxiously stepping forward to fill these shoes is Russia, which has received early support from the IAEA and US Congress to build a fuel bank at Angarsk.

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom has made something of a pageant of the Angarsk site, and Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko speaks of the facility – in line with Rosatom’s typically unfounded optimism – as if it were a fait accompli.

Under current thinking described by the European diplomat, the fuel bank notion does not have to be bound to only one country. “The issue is undecided – there could be three or four nations that hold fuel banks. This is something ElBaradei would like decided before his term ends,” he wrote.

But Kudrik said it is ultimately not so important whether Russia gets the fuel bank as it is that the fuel bank facilitates the IAEA’s quasi-corporate march to spread nuclear power.

“Whether the bank will be in Russia or other countries: this is irrelevant,” said Kudrik.

“[The IAEA] will try to use all the options which allow development of nuclear energy in other countries. Uranium bank is one of the options and they will pursue it to meet the main goal – nuclearising the world.

Putting out proliferation fires
During ElBaradei’s tenure, the agency’s main focus has been trying to reel in the nuclear weapons ambitions of myriad nations, among them Iran, North Korea and Iraq by taking an approach of diplomatic engagement in the face of George Bush-led ostracism of these nations.

Elbaradei and the Agency won the Nobel Prize in 2005 for these efforts. These negotiations as the IAEA’s crowning achievement underscore Kudrik’s point that the agency should be focusing on the proliferation difficulties it is itself helping to fan.

Who will come next?

Under the agency’s rules, ElBaradei’s eventual successor will have to secure 24 votes to achieve a two-thirds majority.

Feroukhi , who is from Algeria, said that, in the first of three rounds on Thursday, Amano won 21 votes to Minty’s 14, while the margin in the second and third rounds was 20 to 15. Feroukhi was speaking to reporters in Vienna and her remarks were relayed by the IAEA. on its Web site.

The agency’s rules provide for a second day of balloting today in which officials cast votes first for the leading candidate, and, if that ballot is inconclusive, for his rival. If neither wins, then a new contest may be started from scratch.

Both Amano and Minty are experienced diplomats and negotiators.

The choice of candidates reflects a division in the IAEA between those Western and industrialized nations that lead the nuclear club and see the atomic agency’s prime role as a watchdog, and developing countries more interested in the broader use of nuclear energy.

Minty, 69, is seen as less of a technocrat, and diplomats close to the process say he reflects the views of developing countries that want the existing nuclear powers to maintain their own commitments to nuclear disarmament and to avoid using concerns over weapons proliferation to limit the spread of peaceful nuclear technology.