What Dangers Are Inherent in IAEA Politicization?

Reputational risks for the IAEA as an objective arbitrator.

Recently the UN General Assembly approved a resolution in relation to the IAEA annual report and its addenda, whereby all nuclear infrastructure in Sevastopol and the related regulatory and surveillance functions were referred to the Ukrainian jurisdiction. This notation actually signified that Sevastopol was not recognized as part of the Russian Federation. The resolution was adopted by 99 votes, with Russia and another nine countries abstaining and 84 countries not participating in the vote altogether.

This issue simply didn’t pop up out of nowhere. For the first time it was broached by US, British and Canadian representatives at a meeting of the UN General Assembly on September 28, 2014. But at that moment, no attempts were made to document this position. Later, the same arguments were reflected in the addenda to the said report on the IAEA activities in 2014 that was presented at a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors in June 2015. Ambassador at Large Grigory Berdennikov, who led the Russian delegation, restated the Russian position that it was impossible to agree with the report because it followed from the addenda that Sevastopol was part of Ukraine during the whole of 2014.

The same addenda contained a reservation to the effect that by entering relevant data on the list of nuclear installations the IAEA does not express any view with regard to the legal status of a country or territory, their authorities, or concerning the delimitation of their borders. This reservation was part of a compromise solution enabling the approval of the report by the Board of Governors and the IAEA General Conference. But the General Assembly resolution failed to take the compromise into account, which explained the lack of consensus in voting, which is uncharacteristic for documents of this sort. But what is so special about these facilities in Sevastopol that led to the renunciation of the consensus principle in the IAEA support resolutions?

The case in point is a research reactor at the Sevastopol National Nuclear Energy and Industry University (SNNEIU), which became part of the Sevastopol State University (SSU) in October 2014. The SNNEIU reactor is a 200 KW IR-100 research reactor using 10 to 36% enriched nuclear fuel. Originally the complex was used to train submarine electricians who were taught how to run a real nuclear installation, monitor radiation environment, etc. Later SNNEIU was converted to an open university tasked with training nuclear power installation operators, specialists on radiation and nuclear security, and other staff proficient in nuclear waste storage and processing.

The reactor participated in the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return program, which contributed to the withdrawal, in December 2010, of all highly enriched uranium fuel (over 20% enriched uranium-235). As of now, the reactor has been shut down for relicensing.

All risks associated with the availability of highly enriched uranium fit for manufacturing a nuclear explosive device have been removed. The facility represents no proliferation threat and can be used for research and training purposes.

Since the March 2014 referendum and the subsequent accession of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to the Russian Federation in spring 2014, Ukraine’s State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation (SINR) has lost access to all nuclear infrastructure facilities in Crimea, which reverted to the jurisdiction of the relevant Russian supervisory agencies. The Russian Federation duly notified the IAEA Secretariat, suggesting that the Agency’s guarantees are applied at these facilities under an existing agreement with Russia rather than Ukraine.

The Ukrainian SINR immediately declared that its restricted access to Ukrainian nuclear facilities in Crimea makes it impossible to guarantee safety and preservation of equipment and nuclear materials, although the change of jurisdiction in no way affected the safety of the nuclear facilities and their stores of nuclear materials in terms of IAEA guarantees. But this situation fit in well with the general concept underlying the all-out campaign of pressure against Russia and was exploited to the hilt even despite the fact that the change of jurisdiction was undoubtedly a positive factor from the point of view of nuclear safety.

We don’t call into question the competence of SINR specialists when it comes to ensuring IAEA guarantees or the required level of security at nuclear infrastructure facilities (for example, they protected the BBP-M research reactor at the Nuclear Research Institute of the National Academy of Sciences during the mass armed unrest in Kiev and cut short the Right Sector’s attempt to enter the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant on May 16, 2014), but for fairness’ sake we shouldn’t forget that the Ukrainian secret services failed to prevent the sabotaging of ETL pylons near Kherson, which is a far less sensitive facility than a nuclear reactor. Political instability in Ukraine is likely to affect external security at critical infrastructure facilities, while the current economic situation (real pay reductions, high inflation, devaluation of the national currency against the dollar and the euro) may demotivate the personnel and lead to the emergence of “inner threats.”

The attempts to deny by every available method that Sevastopol and the Republic of Crimea are part of the Russian Federation will certainly continue. But what is causing our particular concern is the fact that these attempts tend to be increasingly made through previously non-political (or only slightly political) channels. In the case of the UN General Assembly resolution, the retreat from consensus in combination with the politicization of views and formulas not only is fraught with reputational risks for the IAEA as an objective arbitrator but may also cause harm to its activities as a whole.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.