October 16, 2015

The IAEA: An Historical Look

Dr. Elisabeth Röhrlich presented on the history of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on October 16, 2015 as part of the Walsh School of Foreign Service’s Nuclear Issues Seminar Series. Dr. Röhrlich, a professor at the Universität Wien (University of Vienna), is currently on a one-year Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for historical research about the IAEA.

After an introduction by Kathryn Olesko, associate professor with the SFS Science, Technology, and International Affairs Program, Dr. Röhrlich addressed the evolution of the IAEA from its tenuous struggle to life in the 1950s to its current role in global governance of nuclear technology.

The IAEA’s first conference coincided with the day that Sputnik was launched in 1957. This escalation in tensions between the United States and the USSR could have spelled the end of the IAEA. But both sides recognized the need for some global entity to help manage the new nuclear age, and some strategic compromises from the East and West helped the agency to survive its turbulent infancy. Intended to be both a repository for safe, controlled distribution of and assistance with nuclear power technology, as well as a means of establishing safeguards against nuclear weapons proliferation, the IAEA continued to struggle in its early years. It faced down Cold War tensions between the United States and the USSR as well as concerns from developing nations about the threat of a new “super colonialism.”

Over time, however, the IAEA has strengthened in its role. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as a shift in the 1990s towards increased oversight of nuclear programs (and the willingness of member nations to provide intelligence reports), helped to make the IAEA more viable. Nonetheless, Dr. Röhrlich emphasized that “the IAEA is what the member states make it,” as each member state negotiates its own safeguard agreement. This flexibility may have weakened the IAEA in the beginning, but in hindsight seems to be one of the reasons for the agency’s longevity and adaptability.

Recent events, including the Iran treaty, recognition of climate change from fossil fuel use, and Fukushima power plant disaster, have continued the debate over the ideal of nuclear power versus the threat of nuclear proliferation, and made the IAEA increasingly relevant. Dr. Röhrlich’s historical overview of the IAEA gave Georgetown a glimpse into the growth and development of a global governance institution, as well as an in-depth explanation for the role the IAEA plays in the world today. As nuclear technology continues to spread, it is likely that the IAEA’s role in the world will continue to expand, hopefully for the safety and betterment of all nations.