Mr. Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watchdog agency that he leads, are the winners of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. The award underscores the critical significance of the work done by Mr. ElBaradei and the IAEA. But given the events of the last year, it is plain that the recognition is for the effort that has been made by the recipients, rather than the results of their work — and to remind the world that the IAEA chief, and the agency itself, are increasingly vital components of the international security order.

Founded in 1957, the IAEA is part of the United Nations system. The agency is tasked with ensuring that the bargain in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) — the provision of nuclear technology to signatories in exchange for giving up the right to nuclear weapons — is honored. Throughout most of its history, its employees have labored in obscurity, focusing on technical work, usually inspections. That low profile ended in the 1990s, when the invasion of Iraq uncovered an advanced nuclear-weapons development program and North Korea brought the world to the brink of war with revelations about its own clandestine nuclear-weapons efforts.

Since then, the prospect of nuclear proliferation has loomed ever larger and the loopholes in the NPT have become increasingly clear. Efforts to close them have provoked political firestorms among IAEA members and within the agency itself. One of the most notable clashes has been between the United States and Mr. ElBaradei over Iraq. The IAEA head maintained that Baghdad did not have the nuclear-weapons programs that justified the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. The subsequent discovery that he was right, and Washington wrong, did not help soothe tensions between the two. The U.S. bitterly opposed Mr. ElBaradei when he ran for a third term in office — even though it had engineered his initial appointment as director general eight years ago — until it become clear that he would be re-elected.

The Nobel Committee commended Mr. ElBaradei for being “an afraid advocate . . . at a time when disarmament efforts appear deadlocked, when there is a danger that nuclear arms will spread both to states and to terrorist groups, and when nuclear power again appears to be playing an increasingly significant role.” The committee denied that the award was intended to slight the U.S.; a committee chairman once revealed that giving the 2002 Peace Prize to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was “a kick in the leg” to U.S. President George W. Bush. In fact, the prize has regularly gone to organizations working to halt the spread of nuclear weapons: 20 years ago, the recipient was International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; a decade later, Dr. Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs won.

Mr. ElBaradei said the award will strengthen his resolve. He will need it. The world faces growing numbers of nuclear challenges. Negotiations with North Korea to dismantle its nuclear-weapons programs have shown some movement in recent weeks, but progress is relative — and always uncertain — when dealing with Pyongyang. Efforts to head off Iran’s nuclear ambitions appear to have deadlocked and may yet result in a diplomatic showdown at the U.N. Security Council. The investigation into the nuclear black market run by Pakistan’s Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan continues, and it is likely to show that all three of those efforts are related. Each demonstrates the fragility of the international nonproliferation order and the need for more concerted efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

The primary obstacle is apathy. During the Cold War, the world was sensitized to the threat of nuclear weapons, but the danger then was the prospect of a nuclear holocaust triggered by a superpower confrontation. Today that threat has diminished — although it has not disappeared — but the danger that a nuclear device will be used against civilians has increased. The breaching of the nuclear wall by India and Pakistan has contributed to the erosion of the taboo against nuclear proliferation. There are hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear materials around the world, much of it unsecured, and terrorist groups determined to acquire them to build weapons for their own purposes. And yet as the threat has mounted, the nations of the world could not come to an agreement this year at the NPT Review Conference, which instead broke up in acrimony.

The award to Mr. Elbaradei and the IAEA is intended as a wakeup call. It is a reminder that the nuclear shadow is lengthening. It is still only moments before midnight on the nuclear clock. Efforts to push nuclear nonproliferation must be rejuvenated — and they should serve as a step toward the eventual elimination of all nuclear arsenals.

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