The IAEA: a nuclear bureaucracy

Anna Weichselbraun

My dissertation examines ideologies of knowledge and expertise in the global governance of nuclear technology through an ethnographic study of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Department of Safeguards and the world of non-proliferation policy interest groups. The IAEA’s Department of Safeguards is charged with verifying nuclear material and nuclear activities in a state, and is often described in the press by the moniker “nuclear watchdog.” This watchdog function experienced a deep upset in the early 1990s when it was discovered that Iraq had clandestinely pursued a nuclear weapons program (against their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which prohibits such activity for all “non-nuclear weapons states”).

This was seen as a great failure of the IAEA’s safeguards regime which had operated according to the logic of verifying the state’s declared activities and material. There was an assumption that states would not cheat by not declaring things. In response, the IAEA’s verification system was thoroughly reviewed and transformed with additional legal instruments, technical tools, and a more expansive analytic methodology that purports to evaluate the “state as a whole” instead of simply looking at declared facilities. While the transformation of the safeguards system was intended to strengthen the Agency’s ability to perform credible verifications and repair its tarnished image, it was not free of criticism. A number of member states resent what they see as the Secretariat overreaching its mandate on safeguards. In particular, member states are worried that less quantitative evaluation methods invite politicization, and they insist on maintaining the “objective, technical” basis on which the Department of Safeguards has historically evaluated state compliance with safeguards agreements.

In my work this summer, I have puzzled through the criticisms surrounding the transformation of the safeguards system in an attempt to understand the underlying assumptions about how the system should work. My earlier analyses interpreted demands for the IAEA to remain “technically objective” as an Enlightenment fantasy of scientific objectivity. However, this interpretation did not fit easily the more I investigated the critiques. Upon re-reading Weber’s classic essay on bureaucracy, I realized that I had neglected the role of the organization’s bureaucratic structure in producing a legitimate safeguards system. Indeed, this perspective also helped to answer a question that I had posed from the beginning of my research: why was the monumental problem of controlling nuclear energy addressed by forming a bureaucracy? I began to see that the highly controversial subject of international nuclear safeguards only became an acceptable proposition once it was embedded in a bureaucratic organization which promised rule-based rationality and calculable outcomes.

Thus, this summer I was able to develop the argument which has become central to my dissertation. I wrote an initial draft of a chapter which lays out the controversial development of international nuclear safeguards and identifies the main critiques. Through a review of archival material and secondary literature, I show that critics of safeguards were primarily concerned with discriminatory inspections and resented the breach of sovereignty that international inspections would entail. Global political acceptance of international safeguards was made possible by ensuring that safeguards inspectors would act as bureaucrats. I anchor this claim to Weber’s ideal-typical concepts surrounding bureaucratic functioning and propose that the organization’s main epistemic mode is one of bureaucratic objectivity. This mode enables the mechanistic and rationalized application of technical systems knowledge and functions as an epistemic ideology.

The construction of this argument has allowed me to organize the ethnographic data that I’ve gathered and create a detailed outline of my dissertation. The subsequent chapters of the dissertation will address how the IAEA’s source of authority has been challenged, and how the transformations in the safeguards regime play out in the practices, objects, and discourses of the organization.

My work on this central chapter in my dissertation has been supported by a summer fellowship from the Social Sciences Division. I am grateful for the time to read, to reflect, and to write which this fellowship has provided.

Anna Weichselbraun is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology.