International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The International Atomic Energy Agency, created to manage and encourage the peaceful uses of atomic energy around the world, has become the main international agency involved in monitoring the spread of nuclear weapons material and technology by nations that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Summary of Event

The explosion of the world’s first atomic bomb, in July, 1945, demonstrated the immense power available from nuclear energy. It was immediately clear that nuclear power could be used for peaceful purposes if the rate at which that energy was released could be controlled. In December, 1951, Experimental Breeder Reactor 1, Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 near Arco, Idaho, showed that electric power could be produced from a nuclear reactor. In January, 1955, the USS Nautilus Nautilus (nuclear submarine) became the world’s first ship powered by nuclear energy. International Atomic Energy Agency Statute Creating the International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear energy;regulation [kw]International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations (July 29, 1957) [kw]Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations, International (July 29, 1957) [kw]Energy Agency Begins Operations, International Atomic (July 29, 1957) International Atomic Energy Agency Statute Creating the International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear energy;regulation Statute Creating the International Atomic Energy Agency [g]Europe;July 29, 1957: International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations[05490] [g]Austria;July 29, 1957: International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations[05490] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 29, 1957: International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations[05490] [c]Science and technology;July 29, 1957: International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations[05490] [c]United Nations;July 29, 1957: International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations[05490] Cole, William Sterling Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;nuclear technology ElBaradei, Mohamed

In December, 1953, recognizing that nuclear power could be important for the economic development of poorer nations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed an international Atoms for Peace program. Atoms for Peace program In a speech delivered to the General Assembly of the United Nations (U.N.) on December 8, Eisenhower suggested that the major nuclear powers make nuclear materials and technology available to an international agency. These materials and technology could be used, with appropriate safeguards, to avoid exploitation as weapons and to serve “the peaceful pursuits of mankind.” In response to Eisenhower’s proposal, the Statute Creating the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was approved unanimously by the U.N. General Assembly in October, 1956. This statute mandated that the role of the IAEA was

to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.

On July 29, 1957, the IAEA began operating under a mandate to promote nuclear verification and security, nuclear safety, and nuclear technology transfer. The temporary headquarters of the IAEA were in the former Grand Hotel in Vienna, Austria.

The IAEA reports directly to both the Security Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations, but its operations are not under the direct U.N. control. Policies of the IAEA are determined by two bodies: the Board of Governors and the General Conference. The Board of Governors, which meets five times per year, determines most of the policies. It includes thirteen members selected by the previous Board of Governors and twenty-two members elected by the General Conference. The General Conference includes a representative from each of the member states, with each state having one vote. The Secretariat of the IAEA, which includes the professional and general service staff, is headed by the director-general, who is selected for a four-year term by the Board of Governors and approved by the General Conference. The director-general, who is responsible for implementation of the actions passed by the Board of Governors and the General Conference, oversees the six departments that carry out these policies. The first General Conference of the IAEA, held in Vienna in October, 1957, was attended by representatives of fifty-seven nations. They selected William Sterling Cole, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to be the first director-general of the IAEA.

A major objective of the IAEA is to provide technical assistance and, in some cases, nuclear material to nations that are developing programs to employ nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. In the IAEA’s first year of operation, Canada agreed to provide three tons of natural uranium to the IAEA for distribution, and the United States donated two mobile radioisotope laboratories to the IAEA for use by researchers in developing countries. These activities would be expanded significantly, as the IAEA developed programs to explain and promote the use of radioactive materials in medicine, agriculture, industry, and other areas.

The IAEA has also assumed a world leadership role in developing international standards for radiation safety and permissible levels of radiation exposure. The IAEA recognized that almost all uses of nuclear technology generate radioactive waste materials. In collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UNESCO the IAEA convened the world’s first conference on the disposal of radioactive waste, Nuclear waste which was held in Monaco in November, 1958. In 1961, the IAEA, working with the Oceanographic Laboratory headed by Jacques Cousteau, began a research project to assess the effects of radiation on the oceans Pollution;oceans of the world, including the fish stocks that form a major part of the food supply for some nations.

By the mid-1960’s the IAEA had established a system designed to thwart the diversion of fissionable material, used to power nuclear reactors, into programs for weapons Nuclear weapons;proliferation use. The IAEA significantly expanded its nuclear safety efforts after the nuclear reactor accident that occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986. The IAEA monitors the flow of nuclear material into and out of nuclear installations in member countries using on-site inspections, audits of nuclear material, and inventory controls. Cameras and seals are used for monitoring when IAEA personnel are not present. The role of the IAEA in assuring that this shared nuclear technology is not used for military purposes expanded with the passage of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970) (NPT) in 1968. The NPT requires countries with nuclear weapons to take measures to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons by not assisting any nation in the creation of nuclear weapons. The treaty also requires that non-nuclear nations may not use peaceful nuclear technology to develop nuclear weapons. The NPT placed the nuclear facilities in nations that signed the treaty under the inspection authority of the IAEA, but the inspection actions of the IAEA are limited. The IAEA cannot inspect the nuclear facilities of nations that have not signed the NPT, and, even within nations that have signed the NPT, the IAEA can inspect only those facilities that a nation will allow it to inspect.


The IAEA grew from an initial membership of 57 nations to include 143 member states. Due to the efforts of the IAEA, nuclear technology evolved from solely a weapon for war to include many peaceful uses of radioactivity and nuclear energy in areas including nuclear medicine, industrial technology, and agriculture around the world.

After the Three Mile Island reactor accident in the United States (1979) and the more serious Chernobyl reactor accident in the Soviet Union (1986), the general population became fearful of nuclear energy. Some countries, including Sweden, took steps to shut down existing reactors and prohibit construction of new ones. Nevertheless, nuclear energy continues to be an increasingly important alternative to fossil fuels. Because more than four hundred existing reactors produce almost 20 percent of the world’s electricity and nuclear power is being suggested as a replacement for fossil fuels to curb the effects of global warming, the IAEA has served as a focal point for the exchange of information on nuclear reactor safety.

Although the IAEA has many functions other than inspection, its emerging role in restricting the spread of nuclear weapons has resulted in the IAEA being referred to as “the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog.” More than 150 countries have signed the NPT, agreeing not to build or obtain nuclear weapons in exchange for a commitment that they will have access to peaceful nuclear technology. About two hundred IAEA inspectors verify compliance with the NPT. The IAEA inspectors conduct on-site inspections in every part of the world to ensure that the nuclear material held in about one thousand nuclear installations in some seventy countries is not diverted from peaceful uses to weapons programs.

The IAEA’s efforts have contributed to international security and have helped minimize the spread of nuclear weapons. For this effort, the IAEA and its fourth director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Nobel Peace Prize;International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Energy Agency Statute Creating the International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear energy;regulation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fischer, David. International Atomic Energy Agency: The First Forty Years. New York: United Nations Publications, 1997. A comprehensive, 550-page account of the goals and achievements of the IAEA, compiled to recognize the fortieth anniversary of the formation of the agency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olson, Steven P. The International Atomic Energy Agency. New York: Rosen, 2004. A well-illustrated, sixty-four-page description of the organization and activities of the IAEA, intended for students and general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, David B. A Guide to the Nuclear Arms Control Treaties. Los Alamos, N.Mex.: Los Alamos Historical Society, 2001. A 332-page account of the nuclear arms race, the international treaties to restrict the spread of nuclear weapons, and the role of the IAEA.

Fermi Creates the First Controlled Nuclear Fission Chain Reaction

World’s First Nuclear Reactor Is Activated

First Nuclear Bomb Is Detonated

Atomic Bombs Destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion

Atomic Energy Commission Is Established

Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor

Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern

Chalk River Nuclear Reactor Explosion and Meltdown

First Nuclear-Powered U.S. Submarine Is Launched

Nuclear Bombing of Bikini Atoll

Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant

Atomic Energy Act

Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing

First Commercial Nuclear Power Plant Opens

Price-Anderson Act Limits Nuclear Liability

Nuclear Waste Explodes in the Ural Mountains

First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens

Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union

Nuclear Powers Sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty

General Public Utilities Announces Plans for a Commercial Nuclear Reactor

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Goes into Effect

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