* Nuclear energy resurgence seen testing U.N. watchdog
* Ex-IAEA aide: dire need for investments in training, IT
* Diplomats see little scope now for budget growth
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Budget austerity in member states is likely to block funding that experts say is required by the U.N. nuclear watchdog to deal with growing demand for atomic energy and the attendant risk of weapons proliferation.
Gareth Evans, co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, said the U.N. body “badly needs” more personnel and upgraded laboratories to do its inspection and monitoring tasks with maximum efficiency.
“But its member states have again ... shied away from delivering much more than purely rhetorical support,” the former Australian foreign minister said in a speech this month.
But senior diplomats in Vienna, where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based, made clear there was little appetite to sharply boost its budget at a time when many countries face belt-tightening at home.
“I’m not so sure that simply asking for more money is necessarily the answer,” one Western envoy said.
The IAEA, which is at the centre of international efforts to clarify the nature of atomic activity in Iran which the West suspects has military aims, expects up to 25 countries to bring their first nuclear power plants on line by 2030.
As some of the technologies and materials used to produce electricity can also be diverted to make weapons, this is expected to increase the demands on U.N. inspectors whose job it is to ensure that such projects are only for peaceful purposes.
The cases of Iran and Syria highlight challenges they face in probing nuclear work in states which are refusing to provide the IAEA with the access and cooperation it says it needs.
Olli Heinonen, a Finnish nuclear expert who was head of the IAEA’s inspections worldwide before resigning in August, said it now inspects some 200 nuclear power reactors globally, a figure expected to increase to up to 350 in the next two decades.
The number of sites producing nuclear fuel — sensitive activity as low-enriched uranium fuel can be turned into bombs if refined much further — is forecast to grow by 20 percent.
“The only thing not growing is our capacity to monitor all this expanded nuclear activity,” Heinonen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University, wrote in an online commentary.
A flat budget in recent years “has led to degradation of laboratories, training and IT systems that are now in dire need of major investment and overhaul,” he added.
For 2010, the agency secured a budget increase of 2.7 percent in real terms to 315 million euros ($434.1 million), but this was considerably less than it had sought.
The bulk of funding for the IAEA, which has more than 2,300 staff, comes from Western member states on a voluntary basis.
A group of industrialised, mainly European states as well as Japan have resisted budget hikes for the agency at a time of economic problems squeezing government finances.
The United States, its biggest financier, has increased contributions since President Barack Obama took office in line with his call for IAEA funds to be doubled in four years.
Mohamed ElBaradei, before he stepped down as IAEA head last December, voiced the frustration of agency officials trying to uphold a mandate covering inspections as well as support for nuclear security and peaceful uses of the atom.
“If you come to me and say in your wisdom to cut here and cut there, I and my colleagues will not assume responsibility if in a couple of years we see another Chernobyl (nuclear plant meltdown) or a nuclear terrorist or a clandestine nuclear (weapons) programme,” he told the IAEA board last year.
But a Vienna-based diplomat said he believed such warnings were premature and made clear his view that the IAEA had enough funds for now to carry out its tasks, as the anticipated increase in new nuclear reactors had yet to materialise.
“They actually got some growth which is not bad given the current fiscal climate,” he said referring to the latest budget.
“I don’t think there is any appetite among the membership for any real growth over the next two years,” the envoy added.
Andreas Persbo, executive Director of the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) in London, said: “There is a risk that the IAEA cannot fulfil its future safeguards responsibilities on a zero-growth budget.” (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)