VIENNA – When the head of the world’s nuclear watchdog died in July, his death was kept secret for four days. Many people didn’t even know Yukiya Amano was sick. The process that will see his post finally filled this week is shrouded in just as much mystery.
The ambassadors of the 35 nations on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board will enter a sealed chamber at its headquarters in Vienna on Monday. Two lawyers acting as witnesses will stand guard as one-by-one each envoy slips a paper ballot into a wooden box. Votes are counted and if nobody receives two-thirds, the process is repeated.
It will be only the sixth time since the dawn of the nuclear age that the IAEA’s board of governors convenes for the odd ritual, which has been compared to the conclave, the gathering of Catholic cardinals who select the new pope.
“It’s a somber occasion, almost like those meetings in the Sistine Chapel,” said former IAEA policy coordinator Tariq Rauf.
The agency’s wood-paneled halls may lack the grandeur of being in the presence of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement,” but whoever is chosen can wield significant power in some of the world’s most vexing hot spots.
The new leader will oversee inspections in Iran as well as the cleanup of Japan’s Fukushima meltdowns and negotiate a safeguards agreement with Saudi Arabia. And then there’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wondering why Turkey shouldn’t have nuclear weapons and North Korea still holding tight to its arsenal.
Argentine diplomat Rafael Grossi is the slight favorite to succeed Amano, according to two informal straw polls. He’s facing off against acting Director General Cornel Feruta from Romania and Burkina Faso’s Lassina Zerbo.
The winner inherits a built-in conflict at the core of this Cold War-era institution. It’s won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping prevent nuclear power from being misused for weapons — but its diplomats, lawyers and scientists are still promoting the spread of nuclear technology at a time when the mood has swung toward renewable energy.
“There are a lot of challenges out there right now,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry last month in Vienna, who tabbed Grossi as a good fit for the job. “Our message to other countries is ‘don’t drag this out.’ To not have a director general in place is problematic.”
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower founded the agency in 1957 just months before the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite into orbit, prompting concern the U.S. could lose the technology race. Choosing the capital of a neutral country to host its headquarters appealed to actors on either side of the Iron Curtain who used it as a base for espionage.
Unlike the International Monetary Fund or World Health Organization, the IAEA’s board doesn’t publish a job description outlining the minimum qualifications to become its chief. Four IAEA directors general have been lawyers and just one, Sigvard Eklund of Sweden, was a scientist.
Western countries that dominate the agency want it to strictly keep watch over other nations investigating the mysteries of the atom, according to Britain’s former IAEA ambassador, Peter Jenkins, who added “the cardinals don’t like to be hemmed in by other objective criteria in choosing a leader.”
The language of religion often infuses the atomic Jesuit cabal. The agency’s so-called Safeguards codes are referred to as “the bible” atop which all other activity rests, said one senior diplomat who asked not to be named. IAEA information circulars are to heads of state what Papal encyclicals are to Catholic souls, said another official. Altogether, the rules allow inspectors to track of gram-levels of nuclear materials stored in secretive sites around the world.
Rauf, the former IAEA policy coordinator, held court during the 2009 vote when Amano was elected after a record six rounds of balloting. That race was characterized by intense behind-the-scenes lobbying to elect the Japanese diplomat, who was perceived as “solidly in the U.S. court,” according to State Department cables published at the time by WikiLeaks.
Now Rauf’s advocating for more transparency in the selection process to avoid any appearance of “diplomatic corruption and dealmaking.” The agency’s future could hinge on building trust over how its €377 million ($419 million) is administered, he said.
The IAEA has taken some steps to appear less secretive and lessen the legacy of a bygone era, publishing video clips of candidate speeches and pictures of preliminary voting.
“We live in 2019, so I think it was a natural thing,” said Sweden’s Ambassador Mikaela Kumlin Granit, who is in charge of organizing the voting. “The IAEA should be an organization that keeps up with the times.”