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  • Writer's pictureHarry Law

An IAEA for AI? The Early History of the International Atomic Energy Agency

How the International Atomic Energy Agency came to be and what its creation can tell us about a sibling agency to regulate powerful AI models
Champ Panupong Techawongthawon, Visualising AI by DeepMind

The prospect of new global institutions to govern powerful models is featuring with increased prominence and regularity in public policy discussions. In recent months, there have been calls for an Intergovernmental Panel for Artificial Intelligence modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, an AI-focused group similar in scope to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and an International Atomic Energy Agency equivalent for AI.

Perhaps the most widely discussed of these is an ‘IAEA for AI’, whose focus on promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy its proponents suggest can be viewed as a challenge analogous to ensuring the safe use of AI around the world. Understanding how the IAEA came to be is a useful exercise for those seeking to draw lessons from the organisation to inform global AI governance approaches. To that end, this post summarises the story behind its creation.

Atoms for Peace

The story of the IAEA is the story of the end of the Second World War. Seizing an opportunity to mould a new international order in the aftermath of the conflict, the US sought to shape the emergence of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, supplied Europe with financial support to rebuild via its Marshall Plan, and constructed alliances with the goal of ‘containing’ the Soviet Union.

This was the context in which the US State Department Panel of Consultants on Disarmament, a group made up of officials including Robert Oppenheimer and representatives from academia and civil society, published an influential report on nuclear policy in January 1953. The panel strongly recommended that the US government adopt a policy of greater transparency with the American public regarding the capabilities of nuclear technology and the risks associated with its development. Specifically, the report (p.43) recommended "a policy of candor toward the American people—and at least equally toward its own elected representatives and responsible officials—in presenting the meaning of the arms race." The argument put forward by the panel was that once the Soviet Union would develop its own offensive nuclear capabilities, there would be no scenario in which the US could maintain the asymmetrical advantage it held during the concluding years of the conflict.

Accepting the recommendations of the report, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech in 1953 to the United Nations General Assembly in which he proposed the creation of an international body to regulate and promote the peaceful use of nuclear power. The speech, which was known as the Atoms for Peace address, attempted to balance fears of preventing nuclear proliferation with promises of peaceful use of uranium in nuclear reactors. (We should note, however, that Atoms for Peace would later come to refer to a broader initiative including measures such as the declassification of nuclear power information and the commercialisation of atomic energy.) The 1953 speech, however, was notable in that it outlined the basis for an international agency whose mandate would be to encourage the peaceful use of nuclear fission:
The governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, should begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international atomic energy agency. We would expect that such an agency would be set up under the aegis of the United Nations…The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities.
William Burr of the National Security Archive has proposed, however, that “what Eisenhower left unsaid was that a proposal to donate fissionable materials would put pressure on the Soviet Union.” As US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss explained (p.3), the amount suggested by the US to be donated to the IAEA would be a “figure which we could handle from our stockpile, but which it would be difficult for the Soviets to match.”


Towards the IAEA

Following the speech, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were prepared to advance the IAEA predominantly as an American project without full international support. Such willingness proved to be unnecessary when a host of global powers, including the USSR, made clear that they did not wish to be excluded from what seemed to be a globally significant project.

By the autumn of 1954, members of the United Nations were locked in the negotiations over the new agency's statute. Burr has suggested that the USSR initially showed less interest in the American proposal on safeguards on the proliferation of nuclear technologies, which US officials viewed as a crucial function of the IAEA to ensure that fissile materials were not misused. The subsequent US planning centred on what State Department official Gerard C. Smith and others perceived as a core challenge: the promotion of atomic energy presented a "worldwide security problem" because spent reactor fuel could be repurposed for military purposes.

For Smith and colleagues, the proposed IAEA could serve as a control mechanism to mitigate a "fourth country" from developing nuclear weapons (in addition to the US, USSR and the UK) by preventing the diversion of nuclear resources intended for peaceful purposes towards military activities. To ensure the appropriate use of nuclear resources, the American government proposed that the new organisation be staffed with international civil servants who would oversee resources provided by the agency or by member states through bilateral agreements. To develop a safeguards policy that could gain broad acceptance, the US initiated discussions with allies and partners including Canada, the UK, and Australia.

By the end of 1958, this group organised around the stance that "100% effective control was impossible under any system and that audit and spot inspection would provide as effective control as could reasonably be expected." Some members of the group believed that, because total control could not be guaranteed, an effective compromise would be the introduction of inspectors who could act as a deterrent while maximising the effective scope of the agency. As one Canadian official explained, the concept was "analogous to having available policemen in sufficient number to deter the criminal but not to have one policeman assigned to each potential criminal." US officials agreed with this approach, believing it would be less costly and more politically acceptable than a system whereby inspectors were stationed on a permanent basis.

Continuing their discussions from earlier in the year, the so-called ‘Ottawa Group’ including the US, UK, and Canada reached an agreement on uniform standards for safeguards to be applied when nuclear exporters sold certain “trigger items” such as uranium, fissile material, reactors, or isotope enrichment plants. In this approach, “safeguards should be presented not as an imposition by the supplier but as a joint duty of supplier and recipient flowing from the fundamental responsibility of Governments to ensure that fissile materials are not misused.”

The first General Conference of the new International Atomic Energy in Vienna in 1957

The newly formed IAEA secretariat drafted versions of the safeguards policy, which was debated at the agency’s general conferences held in Vienna between 1957 and 1960 and at independent meetings of the Ottawa group of countries during the intervening years. However, the inspector-based safeguards system favoured by the US, UK, and others proved controversial. India, for example, viewed the proposed approach as “discriminatory in character” due to what it saw as a settlement that favoured countries with the industrial and technical capacity to refine fissile materials. During a private discussion with US, British, and French officials, USSR representative Vasilii Emelianov displayed what the group described as "complete indifference to safeguards and complete skepticism [as] to the effectiveness of any system."

In January 1961, the IAEA’s Board of Governors approved the final policy, known as INFCIRC 26, mandating that safeguards would be applied to significant quantities of existing fissile materials, production of fissionable materials, and nuclear facilities. This would include spot checks by IAEA officials to ensure that countries were abiding to the commitments contained within the draft. Throughout the process, the document underwent numerous amendments and revisions, leading one of the early safeguards officials to later describe (p.55) INFCIRC 26 as "one of the most convoluted pieces of verbal expression in history" which "few people could comprehend, except in long discussion with the handful that did." Despite this, on 31 January 1961, the IAEA finalised the INFCIRC 26 safeguards document with a vote of 17 to 6 at the annual meeting.

An IAEA for AI?

While tempting to look to the IAEA for inspiration for the governance of AI, we should remember that the agency was a product of a world very different to the one we live in today. It was created using different assumptions to solve different problems based on different motivations.

The IAEA was founded to secure international agreement for an inspection programme whose purpose was to monitor how states were using fissile materials. Today, universities and the private sector lead AI development. Nuclear technology is organised around a scarce resource, fissile materials, which can be detected in their raw format and at the point at which the intensive process of refinement begins. And while it is possible to process radioactive materials, one cannot produce the raw materials on which the technology is based. That creates a very different dynamic vis-a-vis powerful machine learning models, which can be built anywhere in the world providing appropriate access to data, compute and technical capability.

While it took the better part of a decade for the seed of an IAEA to germinate into a fully fledged organisation backed by international law, the Ottawa group of countries rapidly developed and consolidated the core ideas behind the organisation in the wake of the Atoms for Peace speech. The majority of risks associated with nuclear technology were already known, whereas the risk profile of today’s machine learning models is likely to increase as models become more capable. As a result, we have a window to study these systems––and their risks––to make sure we alight on the best ideas that work for the future, not just those that worked well in the past.

The danger with any model, image, or metaphor is that it holds us hostage. The map is not the territory, though it can certainly prove useful should we examine it closely enough to see its strengths, deficiencies, and nuances first hand. As we do so we will likely find that we need to move beyond coarse-grained comparisons and tailor our institutions to the nature of the technology we seek to regulate.

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