The Nobel Committee has awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Mohamed ElBaradei , 63, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA ), which he has headed for eight years. As always, some observers are happier about it than others. What is different this time, though, is the fact that the proponents and critics don’t line up in the usual way.
The Nobel Committee no doubt intended to strengthen the hand of the IAEA, which certainly needs more clout for dealing with States aspiring to nuclear status, such as Iran and (still probably) North Korea — not to mention the known nuclear weapons States, which defer to no one.
We may assume that the Bush Administration especially dislikes the Nobel committee’s choice of ElBaradei — or even regards it as a deliberate affront. The IAEA had been responsible for inspecting Iraq, searching for weapons of mass destruction (WMD s) when Saddam Hussein still ran the country. They reported that no such weapons had been found, and were skeptical that any even existed, though they promised to continue the investigations.
At that point, however, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq , having insisted that the country did possess WMDs. Afterward, of course, the US itself was unable to find any such weapons. Awarding the prize to ElBaradei can be seen as another attempt to humiliate Bush, who has also violated other agreements that aimed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Thus the recent review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ended in total failure, and the summit in September was also prevented from reaching substantial agreements to improve the United Nations . Both of these debacles can be attributed to the influence of the US government.
Still, the only person in the Bush Administration who has reacted to this news was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice , who extended her polite congratulations and promised to cooperate with the IAEA.
On the other hand, some peace activists are conspicuously refraining from celebrating the occasion. A few feel that the award should have been divided between ElBaradei and his predecessor, Hans Blix , who had also staunchly defended the nuclear non-proliferation regime from the undermining attempts of the US government. However, that is a minor point.
A more important reason for questioning the Nobel committee’s decision reflects anxiety over the policies of the IAEA, and of course its leaders. Their purpose is not just to restrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons but also actively to foster the spread of peaceful nuclear technology. Insofar as the organization promotes such peaceful uses, it may actually cause future disasters.
There are compelling reasons to worry about “the peaceful atom.” The generation of electricity by nuclear reactors inevitably creates plutonium , which is potentially of great use to terrorists, besides being inherently dangerous, even in the absence of terrorists . All nuclear facilities are sources of nuclear contamination which harms the health of the population in the surrounding area. (See the reports of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Takoma Park, Maryland.
That critique is completely justifiable, as I read the evidence, which is abundant. Unquestionably, the harm done by “peaceful nuclear technology” has vastly surpassed its benefits. Yet I cannot fault Mohamed ElBaradei for this problem. It is not up to him to change the international agreements. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty explicitly offers the non-nuclear States access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, on condition that they not acquire weapons. By now, it is clear that this was a bad bargain — both because the nuclear States have not kept their side of the bargain by disarming their nuclear weapons , and because the “peaceful” uses of nuclear technology do every country more harm than good. The NPT was a mixed blessing; we don’t want to junk it because it has served to inhibit the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yet it entrenches the right of all signatory States to acquire this “peaceful” technology, which had turned out to be so deleterious.
It’s not ElBaradei’s fault that we face this dilemma. It’s our own problem. We need a whole new regime for managing the world”s nuclear installations. Unfortunately, the impending energy shortage will make it even harder to negotiate such changes — yet it must be done. So let’s add that little item to this week’s to-do list.