VIENNA Countries balking at raising the International Atomic Energy Agency's budget have "bastardized" the U.N. watchdog to the point where it is struggling to combat growing proliferation threats, the IAEA chief said on Tuesday.
"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) program," Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told a closed-door meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors. The governing body has for months held up a request for an 11 percent budget hike, with some major donors insisting on further zero real growth at a time of financial crisis while danger mounts of atom bomb know-how reaching volatile regions.
The United States, the IAEA's biggest financier, said on Tuesday it was raising its budget contribution by 20 percent, or $10 million, in keeping with President Barack Obama's call for IAEA funds to be doubled over the next four years.
But the board again failed to agree a new budget at this week's meeting and ElBaradei, who has welcomed Obama's break from longtime U.S. zero-real-growth funding policy, said penny-pinching imperiled the agency's credibility.
"What you are reaping today is what you have sewn for the past 20 years (of tight funding)," he said in unusually undiplomatic remarks betraying frustration of IAEA staff trying to uphold a mandate covering non-proliferation inspections and aid for nuclear security, safety and peaceful uses of the atom.
"The whole idea that we now have to borrow money or stretch out our hat and say please give us money to do security, safety, is really a bastardization of an international organization that is supposed to be a spearhead of peace and security," ElBaradei said on a tape of his speech obtained by Reuters.
"CHEATING THE WORLD PUBLIC"
"We will not assume responsibility for a budget which I know is not ... right. I will be cheating world public opinion to create the impression that we are doing what we're supposed to do, when we know we don't have the money to do it," he said.
The board was expected to reconvene in emergency session in coming weeks in another bid to pass a budget. It must be done in time for rubber-stamping by all 145 member states in September.
Among the IAEA's mounting challenges are investigations into suspected covert nuclear work in Iran and Syria that the United States and some allies suspect was intended to yield atom bombs.
There is also the specter of militant groups such as al Qaeda acquiring materials and knowledge for nuclear weapons.
The IAEA will also have to grapple in coming years with demand from 63 countries, including the Middle East, for help in developing nuclear energy industries.
The budget deadlock has become a theme in an election race to succeed ElBaradei, who retires in November.
Japan is the IAEA's second biggest donor and in a group of industrialized, mainly European states clinging to a zero real growth funding approach. Japan is also fielding the leading contender to replace ElBaradei.
ElBaradei's draft proposal seeks a rise in the operational regular budget to 336 million euros ($466.8 million) in 2010 and for a 1.5 percent increase in 2011 to 341 million euros.
The bulk of IAEA funding comes from Western member states on a voluntary basis. Some of the cash is tied to certain issues on which the money must be spent, or other politicized conditions.
The increased U.S. contribution would help fund core IAEA activities not covered by the regular budget including security of nuclear installations and upgraded equipment for inspectors.
U.S. envoy Geoff Pyatt told the governors their inability to reach the required consensus on a budget was regrettable since a "significant real increase" was urgently needed.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)