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World: Atomic Energy Agency Marks Anniversary With Reflection, Optimism

By Nigel Glass

Vienna, 3 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - This week's general conference in Vienna, marking the fortieth anniversary of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has been filled with reflection and optimism.

Outgoing Director General Hans Blix of Sweden, referred to this final year of his sixteen years as head of the Vienna-based, United Nations agency as an extremely productive period. As evidence, he cited the progress made in the joint agreements on nuclear safety, civil liability for nuclear damage, safety of nuclear waste and verification of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Russia's President Boris Yeltsin sent a message announcing that Moscow would commit itself to removing 500 tons of highly enriched uranium and 50 tons of plutonium from the military program during the decommissioning of weapons under the existing agreements. While Russia had agreed to this principle last year in tri-partite talks with the U.S. and the IAEA, this was its first commitment to specific quantities.

The U.S. delegate, Energy Secretary Ferderico Pena, paid repeated tributes to the cooperation between his country, the Russian Federation and the IAEA. He announced that the U.S. would be removing a further 52 tons of fissionable material from its stockpile and urged other countries to follow the example of the U.S. and Russia.

One of the first countries to sign the protocol on verification of non-proliferation will be Poland. The head of the country's Atomic Energy Commission, Jerzy Niewodniczanski, who was the unanimous choice of the Eastern European group as Chairman of the Vienna conference, looked back on the discovery of polonium and radium by his countrywoman Marie Sklodovska Curie and her husband Pierre Curie, and the essential role of the agency in monitoring the safe use of atomic energy.

Hungary's Parliament is debating legislation to adopt the Convention on Nuclear Safety, and Minister Dr. Szabolcs Fazakas, President of the Hungarian Atomic Energy Commission, paid tribute to the subsequent Convention on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. But he said that Hungary would have liked an agreement with wider scope. During the negotiations on this convention in August, the IAEA member states were unable to reach agreement on the effective inclusion of all spent nuclear fuel, and conditions for trans-boundary movement of all nuclear waste.

The week before the Vienna conference, the Czech Republic signed the convention on radioactive waste and voluntarily included their spent fuel in this agreement. Dr. Karel Kuehnl, the country's Minister for Energy and Trade, described how parliament had passed safety legislation at the beginning of the year, and is determined to increase safety of the old Soviet VVER 1000 designs by upgrading the Dukovany plant as a stable part of the energy system. He conceded, however, that the upgrading of the Temelin power station was posing greater problems than initially envisioned.

The lesser known role of the IAEA in promoting atomic technology in medical health has yielded what Dr. Hans Blix described as spectacular results. The nuclear sterilization of pest insects has resulted in the eradication of the cattle disease rindipest from most countries in Africa and the elimination of the tsetse fly, carrier of sleeping sickness, from the island of Zanzibar.

The Czech Republic's Dr. Karel Kuehnl drew attention to the cooperation between the Agency and the Czech Republic's model project for the construction of a cyclotron for the manufacture of radio-pharmaceuticals.

And, Dr. Blix said the improvement in international control of nuclear weapons and power projects has led to an increase in the attention paid to 'nuclear medicine,' and an active contribution to human health.

The conference also confirmed the appointment of Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei of Egypt as the next Director General.

(Nigel Glass is a staffer of the Vienna-based Central European News Agency, which routinely contributes to RFE/RL.)