Inspectors for Peace: A History of the International Atomic Energy Agency – Book Review

In the aftermath of the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, world powers led by the US focused on controlling the nuclear weapons proliferation.

In the aftermath of the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, world powers led by the US focused on controlling the nuclear weapons proliferation. This eventually resulted in the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957. The IAEA is mandated to develop nuclear safety standards and security guidelines, promote civilian nuclear applications in various fields ranging from food preservation to cancer research and provide assistance in developing nuclear power programmes. However, its dual mandate of promoting civilian uses of nuclear technology while inhibiting military uses, remains at the centre of international political debates. In this context, Elisabeth Roehrlich’s book, Inspectors for Peace, is an academic effort to highlight the IAEA’s pivotal role and evolution as the global focal point for nuclear cooperation, despite technical and political challenges and limitations.

The book comprises eleven chapters: (i) Introduction: Nuclear Inspectors;
(ii) One World or None; (iii) Atoms for Peace; (iv) Cold War Vienna; (v) Science, Safeguards and Bureaucracy; (vi) The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; (vii) Gaps in the System; (viii) North-South Tensions; (ix) Chernobyl; (x) The Nuclear Watchdog; and (xi) Conclusion: The Last Man Standing.

Inspectors for Peace: A History of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Elisabeth Roehrlich (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022, 329 pages)

The book describes the establishment of the UN Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) in 1946 as one of the first post-war attempts to address the nuclear weapons proliferation threat. Under this Commission, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report wasdrafted, which suggested safeguards measures, such as on-site inspections, but also stressed their inadequacy in preventing nuclear weapons proliferation (p. 23). Based on this Report, Baruch Plan was proposed by the US in the same year, calling for establishment of the International Atomic Development Authority (IADA) with “managerial control” over potentially dangerous atomic activities (p. 24). The Soviet Union disagreed, suggesting an international ban on atomic bombs. The conflicting debates ensued, leading to the UNAEC’s dissolution in 1951.

The idea of IAEA emerged from President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech (1953) that envisioned an agency facilitating civil nuclear applications. The author mentions that while Eisenhower’s speech emphasised arms control, this aspect was sidelined in the IAEA negotiations. Instead, nuclear safeguards gained central importance (p. 33). The Agency’s institutional beginning was characterised by political disagreements and technical constraints. It mainly focused on nuclear applications, information exchange and scientific collaboration between East and West. Nevertheless, this was a notable success during the Cold War, compared to other UN-related organisations.

Parallel to the IAEA’s formation, non-proliferation discussions gained momentum within the UN and bilateral diplomatic conversations. Resultantly, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was concluded in 1968, spurred by Cuban missile crisis (1962) and Chinese nuclear test (1964). Although the IAEA was not politically involved in negotiations, it was assigned the mandate to verify the NPT Member States’ compliance with nuclear safeguards.

Despite aforementioned success, there remained loopholes in regulation of proliferation-sensitive nuclear exports. The Indian so-called “Peaceful Nuclear Explosion” (PNE) on 18 May 1974 is a classic case which demonstrated both the NPT’s and IAEA’s limitations, thereby changing the once largely positive attitude towards nuclear explosives for peaceful purposes (pp. 132, 136). The author cites IAEA’s first senior member from a developing country and the head of Pakistani delegation, Munir Ahmad Khan, expressing doubts about India’s peaceful nuclear intensions, noting that there was “hardly any distinction between a so-called peaceful nuclear device and a nuclear weapon” (p. 136). This led to the IAEA’s revision of its guidelines in 1977-78, treating PNEs as indistinguishable from nuclear weapons, after which India withdrew from the Agency’s technical assistance programme (p. 141).

Events from mid-1970s to early-2000s broadened the IAEA’s scope from technical assistance to consensus-building on politically controversial issues as well as leveraging technology for the betterment of human beings. One of these prevailing issues in 1970s was the Western sentiment of mistrust towards developing states with regard to nuclear technology. The author cites the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson calling the situation as “nuclear orientalism” (p. 154). Another issue of concern was the Chernobyl disaster (1986) which prompted the IAEA to demonstrate progress on legal conventions for nuclear safety. The Agency’s dual mandate was also questioned, as it had less regulatory power than perceived on the global level (p. 183).

The IAEA attained advanced technical tools and experience amid new challenges and opportunities. In 1996, the Agency initiated its first ever use of safeguards for environmental sampling as a part of regular inspections (p. 220). In 2003, despite manipulation efforts, the IAEA contested the US stance, informing the UN Security Council that it found no evidence of Iraq reviving its nuclear weapons program since its dismantlement in the 1990s (pp. 223-224). However, this could not prevent the US-led war against Iraq. Since 2002, the Agency is handling the verification case of Iran. The book also discusses the cases of South Africa, North Korea and Libya.

In conclusion, the author highlights IAEA’s reconsideration of its role in protecting people and the environment from the harmful effects of nuclear radiation by, for instance, strengthening the safety regulations for nuclear power plants. This was particularly contextualised in the aftermath of Fukushima disaster in 2011. The IAEA also modified its motto from “Atoms for Peace” to “Atoms for Peace and Development” in 2016, for a twofold purpose: (i) Reflecting the Agency’s technical assistance to the Member States for their development; and (ii) Aligning the Agency’s efforts with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The author underscores the complex management of the IAEA’s diversification of activities around its dual mandate. Referring to the NPT’s influence on global politics, she mentions that “the NPT is a discriminatory regime that privileges the nuclear weapon states, leading to much frustration among the nuclear have-nots” (p. 237).  

Elisabeth Roehrlich has comprehensively captured the history of the nuclear world and the IAEA’s evolution. While appreciating the IAEA’s non-proliferation efforts, she also makes constructive criticism of the Agency. The author, discussing varying perspectives, has challenged the predominantly Western viewpoint found in the existing literature. As the book is based on extensive archival research, in particular the IAEA archives, it is recommended for those who have interest in and are dealing with peaceful uses of nuclear technology and non-proliferation.

Sabiha Mehreen
Sabiha Mehreen
Sabiha Mehreen is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies Sindh (CISSS) Karachi, Pakistan. She has, to her credit, nine publications, including four co-authored research papers and two co-authored book chapters. She was the book project coordinator of “Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations: Pitfalls and the Way Forward,” a joint project between Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Pakistan and Institute of Business Administration Karachi (2020-2021). Her areas of interest include prospects for peace in South Asia, arms control and disarmament. She can be reached at smrizvi2014[at]