What is the International Atomic Energy Agency?

Countries around the world rely on nuclear technology for innovation in food and energy production and other scientific advances.

The very diverse uses of nuclear energy (also called atomic energy) — and the fear of its use as a weapon — prompted world leaders in 1957 to create the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Its task: Promote safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The agency was set up as the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization within the United Nations family following President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 address of the same name to the U.N. General Assembly.

People sitting at desks and chairs arranged in horseshoe pattern in large room watching Rafael Grossi speak on screen above them (© Mary Altaffer/AP Images)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi addresses the United Nations Security Council via video link during a meeting on threats to international peace and security August 11 at U.N. headquarters. (© Mary Altaffer/AP Images)

While the agency is affiliated with the United Nations, it is independent and reports annually to the U.N. General Assembly.

Today the agency includes 175 member states and focuses on:

  • Promoting use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
  • Developing nuclear safety standards and security guidance.
  • Verifying that peaceful nuclear activities are not diverted for military purposes.

Innovations in medicine, food production

The IAEA helps countries adopt nuclear tools for a wide range of peaceful applications, including:

Power: More than 400 nuclear reactors in 32 countries provide about 10% of the world’s electricity with IAEA assistance.

Food security: Nuclear agricultural applications can help combat pests and diseases, increase crop production, protect land and water resources and ensure food safety.

Medicine: Nuclear health technology helps diagnose and treat cancer and other diseases, including early detection of Ebola in Africa.

Verification of peaceful use

People in white coats, hard hats, gloves, masks and booties touring the inside of a nuclear reactor (© Efrem Lukatsky/AP Images)
Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi, center right, inspects the covered exploded reactor inside a shelter construction at the Chornobyl nuclear plant, in Chornobyl, Ukraine, April 27, 2021.

The IAEA is entrusted with a key verification role to ensure that nuclear material is not diverted for weapons production. This directly supports the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Today, nearly all countries have signed the treaty.

When IAEA inspectors visit a nuclear facility, they conduct an audit. They review the activities at a particular facility and compare the information they find with what has been reported to the IAEA.

The agency uses safeguards seals and installs cameras to monitor how material and equipment are used at a facility. The IAEA also may take environmental samples to verify that the plant is using nuclear material only for peaceful purposes.

Special IAEA blue camera displayed on table (© Michael Gruber/AP Images)
An IAEA camera displayed during a press conference conducted by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi in Vienna in December 2021 (© Michael Gruber/AP Images)

Additionally, the IAEA plays a critical role in helping ensure nuclear safety and security by developing safety standards and guidance and providing training and international assistance to help states respond to nuclear or radiological incidents.