By Mark Heinrich
IAEA chief says cash crisis undermining ability to prevent nuclear threats.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief urged 145 member states on Monday to get to grips with an IAEA funding crisis undermining its ability to prevent nuclear proliferation threats.
Opening the IAEA's annual assembly, Mohamed El-Baradei called for urgent steps to increase funding of the UN watchdog, modernise equipment and give it more legal power to verify the nature of nuclear programmes in suspect countries.
"We have really reached a turning point. Years of zero (real) growth budgets have left us with a failing infrastructure and a troubling dependence on voluntary support which invariably has conditions attached," he said.
"This is not just about money. We do not work in a political vacuum. Political commitment to the goals of the agency needs to be renewed at the highest level," El-Baradei told the IAEA's General Conference at its Vienna headquarters.
"It would be a tragedy of epic proportions if we fail to act (for lack of resources) until after a nuclear conflagration, accident or terrorist attack that could have been prevented."
Among major IAEA challenges are investigations into alleged covert nuclear work in Iran and Syria that the United States and some allies suspect may be intended to make atom bombs.
But old equipment, especially in IAEA laboratories, prolongs the time the UN watchdog needs to assess and verify information, including samples tested for evidence of undeclared nuclear activity.
The IAEA, guardian of the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), also lacks the authority to demand full cooperation from countries under investigation and access for inspectors beyond declared nuclear sites.
Its probe of Iran has dragged on for six years and reached an impasse over Tehran's failure to explain allegations of secret nuclear weapons research beyond issuing denials not corroborated by substance, ElBaradei said earlier this month.
He cited a "serious disconnect" between what member states expected the agency to do and the financial means - which come overwhelmingly from wealthy Western countries - they provided.
"It is clear that our ability to do our job is being seriously compromised...If we carry on with business as usual, the agency's effectiveness and value of the service we provide will be gradually eroded."
He urged IAEA members to accept the recommendation of an independent commission for an 80 million euro ($117 million) injection to modernise IAEA labs and emergency response abilities and a gradual doubling of the budget by 2020.
The IAEA's budget now is about 340 million euros a year, which El-Baradei has called penny-pinching for a major UN agency.
Taking the floor after ElBaradei, the United States - the IAEA's largest contributor - endorsed the commission's call for measures to shore up the agency but insisted the NPT system remained solid and made no mention of funding issues.
The annual week-long meeting is dedicated to ways of improving non-proliferation and access to nuclear energy for development needs. But it also airs politicised disputes between nuclear haves and have-nots and this year will be no different.
Another diplomatic brawl is looming between Islamic states and Israel over their push for resolutions demanding it subject its atomic programme to IAEA control and scrap its undeclared nuclear arsenal to free the Middle East of doomsday weapons.
Further controversy lurks as the West is opposing an Arab-backed bid by Syria for a seat on the IAEA's 35-nation governing board, even though Damascus is under agency investigation over alleged secret nuclear work. (Reuters)