In what many see as a nod to the importance of diplomatic rather than military action for controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. "At a time when disarmament efforts appear deadlocked," the prize committee announced today, the "IAEA's work is of incalculable importance."
A 63 year-old Egyptian and a lawyer by training, ElBaradei has led the agency since 1997, a period of intense nuclear negotiations with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The U.S. government has been critical of ElBaradei for not being more aggressive, particularly with Iran. President Bush has characterized Iran's nuclear program as a thinly veiled bid for nuclear weapons rather than a peaceful energy source. The prize, which will be awarded 10 December in a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, "will immunize the agency against sniping from political quarters," predicts Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C.
The Nobel Committee also cited the agency's activities that receive less press, such as improving the safety of nuclear power plants, devising better schemes for dealing with radioactive waste, and researching the health effects of radiological exposure. The agency's budget, provided through dues from member countries, is "next to nothing," says Burt Richter, a nuclear physicist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who directed an IAEA science forum last month. That forces the scientists associated with the IAEA--like many other international initiatives--to work "on their own time with their own resources," he says.
At a Vienna press conference today, ElBaradei called the award "a very strong message: Keep doing what you are doing." It's a "shot in the arm" for the agency and its mission, he says.