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).
International Atomic Energy Agency
The International Atomic Energy Agency works with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies. The IAEA’s relationship with the United Nations is guided by an agreement signed in 1957. It stipulates that: “The Agency undertakes to conduct its activities in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations Charter to promote peace and international co-operation, and in conformity with policies of the United Nations furthering the establishment of safeguarded worldwide disarmament and in conformity with any international agreements entered into pursuant to such policies.”
As of 31 December 2018, 30 countries worldwide are operating 451 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 55 new nuclear plants are under construction. By the end of 2018, 13 countries relied on nuclear energy to supply at least one-quarter of their total electricity. In France, Hungary, Slovakia, and Ukraine, nuclear power even makes up for more than half of the total electricity production.
Nuclear safety is the responsibility of every nation that utilizes nuclear technology. The IAEA, through the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, works to provide a strong, sustainable and visible global nuclear safety and security framework for the protection of people, society and the environment. This framework provides for the harmonized development and application of safety and security standards, guidelines and requirements; but it does not have the mandate to enforce the application of safety standards within a country.
The 1986 Chernobyl plant accident in Ukraine was the result of a flawed design of the reactor, which was operated by inadequately trained personnel.
During the first four years after the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet authorities decided to largely deal with the consequences of the explosion at a national level. Without Soviet support, the United Nations and its partners sought ways to provide emergency support, which included assessing the nuclear safety and environmental conditions of the contaminated area, and diagnosing the various medical conditions that resulted from the accident.
After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, international cooperation in nuclear safety was significantly intensified: four international safety conventions, two Codes of Conduct, fundamental safety principles and a body of globally recognized IAEA Safety Standards were developed and adopted. The IAEA's Safety Standards reflect an international consensus on what constitutes a high level of safety for protecting people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.
In March 2011, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered major damage from the failure of equipment after the magnitude 9.0 great east-Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami. It was the largest civilian nuclear accident since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Radioactive material was released from the damaged plant and tens of thousands of people were evacuated. The IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre was immediately activated in full response mode, bringing together a team of experts in nuclear safety, emergency response, and radiation protection. The Centre collected and analysed data and provided regular updates to the IAEA member states, international organizations, the media and the public.
Three months later, the IAEA hosted a Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety. This paved the way for the unanimous endorsement of the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety by the IAEA member states in September 2011, which has since fostered international collaboration toward strengthening global nuclear safety.
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
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.”
UN Conference on Disarmament
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).
Nuclear weapon-free areas
The establishment of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) is a regional approach to strengthen global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament norms and consolidate international efforts towards peace and security. Article VII of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) states: “Nothing in this Treaty affects the right of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.“
Treaties Involved in the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones
The following treaties form the basis for the existing Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones:
- Treaty of Tlatelolco — Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean
- Treaty of Rarotonga — South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty
- Treaty of Bangkok — Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone
- Treaty of Pelindaba — African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty
- Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia
Multilateral and bilateral nuclear disarmament and arms regulation agreements