Sunday, November 20, 2011


Are Both Needed?

Shortly after I published my post on Russia announcing its intent to join the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, I received the following message from a friend who follows my blog:


Your argument for the positive aspects of the NEA is persuasive. However, you have not addressed the separate issue as to why is is necessary to have both organizations, the NEA and the IAEA. The NEA seems too closely allied with OECD, which, despite the membership of South Korea, is still seen as a European-only organization with all the "old (read irrelevant) Europe" baggage associated therewith.

-[name removed]

P.S.: Even though I am an non-Nuc, I still love your stuff.

Since he has chosen not to post his comment directly to my blog, I have respected his apparent wish for anonymity and removed his name, but left the rest of the comment intact.

First, I want to assure him that his comments are always welcome, either privately or to the blog. I am delighted to have readers with a variety of perspectives--including readers who are outside the nuclear field, and readers who are from outside the US. The real purpose of a blog is to try to share perspectives with a variety of people, and I'm pleased that he is a regular reader.

Second, I want him to know that he asked an excellent question. It is a question that has been debated from time to time in capitals of several of the member countries, the United States among them. And I am sure it is an issue that will continue to be debated. The question is a very perceptive one. He should not feel that he is a second-class citizen in this venue simply because he works in a different field.

There is, indeed, overlap between the two agencies. My friend is far from the first to wonder if the functions couldn't be consolidated into one organization. Naturally, whenever that question has been raised, the assumption has always been that any consolidation would absorb the activities of the NEA into the IAEA, which is much larger and has a much broader mission. After all, all members of the NEA are already members of the IAEA.

So far, every time the issue has been considered by the government of one of the NEA members, the outcome has been to decide to continue funding that country's membership in the NEA. There are several reasons for this:

• The IAEA was founded as an organization to help assure the peaceful use of nuclear energy by helping support countries in their efforts to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Therefore, a large portion of the IAEA's resources is spent on efforts aimed at emerging countries. This is important, but it tends to create a different focus than exists in the NEA, where the emphasis is more on mutual support among equals to assure the safe use of nuclear energy.

• Because of the different focus, the work of the NEA is not as affected by political posturing as is the work of the IAEA. (I hasten to add that this is not to say that the NEA membership is in agreement on everything. In particular, several countries within the NEA are against nuclear power. However, this is a very targeted difference of opinion. Fundamentally, the countries of NEA are not seeking to wipe each other off the face of the earth, as is the case for some of the IAEA countries.)

• Because of the much smaller membership of the NEA, it is easier to come to consensus, and therefore, projects can often move forward faster.

Obviously, having two organizations involved in the same area of effort is not an ideal situation. It creates a strong risk of duplication, and pressure within each organization to grab any new "turf." There have, over time, been cases where the co-operation between the organizations has been less than perfect. They never get too far out of line, however, because the government accountants in each country have sharp pencils (excuse the slightly old-fashioned image here) and are eager to ferret out any duplication and use it as justification for wielding the budget axe. One of my on-going jobs when I was at NEA, in fact, was to negotiate with IAEA over areas where there was common interest in order to carve out logical and non-duplicative niches for both agencies.

As to the Euro-centric focus, you've hit another nail on the head there. That is an issue with which the OECD is currently struggling. However, I must note that the OECD is not completely Euro-centric. Non-European members include Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand (a member of OECD, but not of NEA), Canada, Mexico, the United States, and in the last year or so, Chile and Israel (both have joined the OECD, but not NEA, at least as of now). There are also several former Iron Curtain countries in the membership. It is true that the expansion from 30 to 34 countries was was a painful compromise for OECD, with Estonia and Slovenia added to assure that the addition of countries outside Europe did not appreciably dilute the European influence. So it is true that the European influence within OECD, while not absolute, is carefully being maintained at about current levels.

What is more important than geography, for both the OECD and the NEA, is the significance of non-OECD countries in the spheres within which each organization operates. (Note: NEA is part of the OECD, but we can discuss it separately because it is funded separately by the member countries and operates as a "semi-autonomous" agency.) Until recently, the OECD nations held most of the world's wealth, and were responsible for most of the world's commerce. Until recently, the NEA nations operated most of the world's nuclear power plants. Therefore, the perspective of the OECD and NEA memberships in their respective areas were indeed the perspectives of the dominant countries. Today, the OECD and NEA predominance in both of these areas is diminishing rapidly. That is why it is so important for these two organizations to find a way to include some of the most important "emerging nations" in their deliberations.

Membership is always the most difficult hurdle, especially for the OECD, which considers its members to be "market-oriented democracies" and wishes to limit new members to the relatively small circle of countries that could make such a claim. While that characterization could be debated for some OECD countries, both in the past and even today, a further valid point is that both organizations benefit by remaining relatively small. Therefore, instead of increasing membership, both organizations have long-standing practices of including selected non-member countries in activities of their committees, in meetings, and in other activities as an alternative means of accommodating other important viewpoints.

In addition to the kind of past involvement by Russia and other countries that I mentioned in my previous post, NEA serves as the Secretariat for several dozen research projects. Many of these include non-NEA member countries as participants and have done so for years.

So, as a somewhat long answer to your question, I would say that most people who have worked with the two organizations have come to see the different values each brings to the table. Is having two organizations a perfect system? No, of course not. It requires on-going attention by the management of both organizations. Would something be lost if the two organizations merged? Yes, most close observers think so, but it is an important question, and one that I am sure will continue to be debated.

[For anyone interested in the history of the NEA, I prepared a document, available as a review draft, covering the first 50 years of the agency as background for the celebration of that event several years ago.]


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