Ed Crooks The IAEA’s new director-general: the challenge he faces

The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) has appopinted a new director-general, Yukiya Amano of Japan, to replace Mohamed ElBaradei.

The decision marks the end of an era. Mr ElBaradei, who steps down at the end of November, has been in office since 1997, having been re-appointed in 2001 and 2005, in spite of frequent criticism from countries including the US and Britain.

Mr Amano’s public statements do not suggest he will take a very different line from Mr ElBaradei, however. And while the face may be different, the challenges are very much the same.

Iran, of course, is likely to dominate Mr Amano’s agenda.

In June, senator John Kerry, the Senate’s top Democrat on foreign policy, raised the possibility of a fundamental shift in the UN’s stance on Iran’s nuclear programme. He argued for dropping the long-standing demand from the UN security council that Iran should stop enriching uranium, arguing that it had “a right to peaceful nuclear power”. As he put it to the FT:

The Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous, on its face, because Iran is a signatory to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty and whether they are inside or outside their obligations, to ask them to give up something that was within their rights within the treaty assuming they were up to their obligations is a non-starter…

They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose. But they don’t have a right, obviously, to be outside of the other restraints of the IAEA and of the non-proliferation agreement. And so the key here was to really open a different kind of dialogue with them about where you draw the line.

However, he expressed those views before Iran’s election and the subsequent crackdown on protestors.

Beyond Iran, though, Mr Amano has a huge job in watching over the planned expansion of nuclear power in dozens more countries around the world. In the Middle East alone, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan all have programmes for new nuclear development. China and India also plan to invest billions in new reactors.

The case for nuclear power has become increasingly powerful in recent years, as concern over climate change and shortages of fossil fuels has grown. But probably the biggest risk in the rise of nuclear energy is proliferation, increasing the danger that nuclear capabilities and materials will fall into the wrong hands.

To manage that risk effectively while allowing nuclear power to make an effective contribution to meeting the world’s energy needs will be a searching test for Mr Amano.