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Nuclear watchdog short of cash

The International Atomic Energy Agency complains that US and other nations are not contributing as promised.

The world's leading nuclear watchdog warned this week that it's not getting the money to do its job.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), given the task of monitoring the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea, and others, has also been taxed of late by the so-called "nuclear renaissance." As countries renew the push for nuclear energy, they expect the IAEA to help safeguard new power plants.

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In a letter sent to the 144 IAEA member-states after budget negotiations stalled last week, director-general Mohammed ElBaradei wrote, "You could finance a less effective agency and we will tell you what that would mean – less than credible verification assurance, less than the best safety advice, a less than perfect security function."

Yet, though the major powers voice fears of nuclear terrorism and nuclear accidents, financial support for the IAEA doesn't necessarily follow, says Vitaly Fedchenko, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.

"There's an expression in English: Put your money where your mouth is," says Mr. Fedchenko. "If you're saying the IAEA is important, OK, but do you really mean that by contributing to the agency? Arranging your spending priorities in a certain way is a political statement in itself."

With the IAEA's ¤283 million ($379 million) annual budget, the United Nations has touted the Vienna-based agency as "an extraordinary bargain." The US Office of Management and Budget has stamped it as "100 percent" worth the US allocation. The IAEA and ElBaradei were jointly awarded the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

As the US is the IAEA's main sponsor, contributing 25 percent of the budget – only Japan is No. 2 with 19 percent – some observers accuse Washington of reluctance to expand the budget. A US official rejects the charge.

"All I'm doing is laying out the facts: we are the IAEA's largest supporter," says the State Department official. While new US legislation has "reduced the limit of what we pay to any international organization to 22 percent, the one exception is the IAEA."

But the IAEA reported last September that of the ¤35 million donors had yet to deliver, Washington owed one-third of it.

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The negotiations by the IAEA Board of Governors ended last week with the prospect of zero increase in funding, prompting ElBaradei to speak out. The budget deadline is in September, at the IAEA General Conference.