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United Nations Global Issues

Atomic Energy

The UN and the nuclear age were born almost simultaneously.  The horror of the Second World War, culminating in the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, brought home the need to address the nuclear issue.  By its first resolution, the General Assembly established the UN Atomic Energy Commission to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy.  And a landmark address by United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, “Atoms for Peace”, led to the establishment in 1957 of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Today, 439 nuclear power reactors produce approximately 16 per cent of the world’s electricity. In nine countries, over 40 per cent of energy production comes from nuclear power. The IAEA, an international organization in the UN family, fosters the safe, secure and peaceful uses of atomic energy and helps ensure the use of nuclear technology for sustainable development.

Under the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the IAEA conducts on-site inspections to ensure that nuclear materials are used only used for peaceful purposes.  Prior to the 2003 Iraq war, its inspectors played a key role in uncovering and eliminating Iraq’s banned weapons programmes and capabilities.  In 2005, the Agency and its Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.”

The UN Conference on Disarmament, the sole multilateral negotiating forum on disarmament, produced the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which was adopted in 1996.  The Office for Disarmament Affairs promotes nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.  The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space produced the 1992 Principles on the use of nuclear power sources in outer space.  The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reports on the levels and effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, providing the scientific basis for protection and safety standards worldwide.

Addressing the danger of nuclear terrorism, the UN has also produced the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (Vienna, 1980), and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005).

“There are also concerns that a “nuclear renaissance” could soon take place, with nuclear energy being seen as a clean, emission-free alternative at a time of intensifying efforts to combat climate change. The main worry is that this will lead to the production and use of more nuclear materials that must be protected against proliferation and terrorist threats."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Address to the East-West Institute
"The United Nations and security in a nuclear-weapon-free world"
(24 October 2008)