Skip to main content

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was incrementally established as a response to the simultaneous fears and expectations arising from the discovery of nuclear energy. The Agency’s role fluctuated continuously between these two outlooks, changing in accordance with (inter)national moods, politics, and uninterrupted technological change.[1] The historical development of the IAEA necessarily reflects these changing attitudes towards nuclear energy. Aside from a few works on the IAEA’s evolution as an international organization, however, the Agency’s complex and multilayered role in the proliferation of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and non-proliferation of sensitive technology has not been investigated, due mostly to the relative inaccessibility of the Agency’s records and related materials.[2]

In this respect, the holdings of the IAEA Archives represent one of the most desirable collections of documents related to the history of nuclear weapons and the proliferation of nuclear technology. At the same time, this archival material is extraordinarily difficult to access, due to a variety of practical and administrative obstacles, the reasons for which are numerous.

This report offers an insider’s view on some potential problems future researchers might encounter in the IAEA Archives, as well as some practical advice. As a researcher in the IAEA Archives, I had the opportunity to conduct research there for six full weeks which, with all its successes and disappointments, proved to be a very valuable and pleasant experience and one that helped to expand the scope of my dissertation and uncover several interesting new aspects of my ongoing work. [3]

Obstacles and Basic Overview of the Working Environment

One of the biggest obstacles to research at the IAEA Archives is the lack of finding aids. However, this statement requires some qualification. Finding aids do exist and, in my experience, function quite well. However, only the IAEA’s archivists are allowed to access the finding aids in order to select documents requested by researchers. For the earlier period of the IAEA’s history, roughly between the late 1950s and early 1970s, some catalogs are available to researchers. Yet these catalogues are not specialized finding aids, but rather simple lists of documents (similar to a library catalog) that different departments of the IAEA sent or received in a given period. These lists are organized chronologically and divided into series or collections based on the principle of provenance (that is, the institution or a member country the IAEA was in communication with).[4] While the catalogs are helpful, without direct access to the finding aids, researcher face unnecessary obstacles in their research..

The understaffing of the archives is a closely related problem. While there is absolutely no reason to question the archivists’ qualifications, training, or experience, nor their openness to researchers’ questions, suggestions, and requests, the fact remains that besides assisting researchers, they have a number of everyday tasks to perform. From the researcher’s perspective, this results in practical problems such as the apparent slowness in collecting requested material, which is especially visible in situations where there are several researchers working at the same time. However, the staff are highly professional and dedicated, are always willing to assist researchers to the extent possible, and can be considered one of the prime assets of the institution.

The reading room is rather small, capable of accommodating only four to five researchers at the same time. Equipment such as photocopying machines and scanners are not available in the reading room, although archivists are available to perform scanning or copying of documents at the researchers’ request. The problem remains, however, that due to the small number of employees and their lack of free time, the use of these services must be planned well in advance and in communication with the staff. Planning ahead is even more important in cases when multiple researchers are working at the same time. Fortunately, the use of personal cameras is allowed, with no limitations to the number of photographs that can be taken. Free access to internet is also available through an open Wi-Fi account with a very good connection speed.

Working hours of the IAEA Archives are between 8:30 A.M and 5:00 P.M. which is more than enough, particularly in cases of short research periods. On a related topic, it must be stressed that, according to my experience, there are no limitations related to the length of the research period. This is in contrast with Anna Weichselbraun’s report, published earlier this year, in which she underscored that “[t]he IAEA Archives currently limits individual researcher visits to five consecutive days per month.”[5] While the reasons for this obvious discrepancy in experiences in the IAEA Archives are not entirely clear, it could be a sign of changing attitudes in the IAEA administration towards public access to the Agency’s records, perhaps in response to Weichselbraun’s report. My own research lasted uninterrupted for six full weeks, and several other researchers who visited the Archives during my stay were not limited.

Focusing only on the archival materials available at the IAEA Archives, several remarks can be made. Considering the fact that, ever since its establishment, the IAEA was a huge international institution in constant communication with member states’ governments, with scientific communities, and with other institutions (nuclear institutes, universities, hospitals, atomic commissions, research centers, etc.), the majority of the archival materials are official correspondence between the Agency staff of various ranks and the representatives of member countries. This kind of material is impossible to avoid, and it seldom reveals any kind of interesting information, making research rather laborious and time consuming. Another problem is the sheer volume of the existing material which, in combination with my previous observations, undermines any ambitious plans for a short research trip to produce meaningful results. 

The biggest obstacle to research at the IAEA Archives is the limited access to the archival materials. Access is currently restricted to unclassified materials older than 30 years, although even that policy is not regularly upheld, as stressed by Weichselbraun.[6] This obviously creates a huge problem for researchers working on more contemporary topics. However, the biggest problem is the existence of classified materials to which even the 30-years policy does not apply. For example, classified records and documents of the Board of Governors are exempted from the 30-years rule, unless these records are formally declassified or derestricted.[7] Considering the rest of the historical records, here we come to slippery ground, as it is next to impossible to receive the full list of documents that are classified—the only way a researcher can learn about this is by being informed that certain material that was ordered is not available due to its confidential nature. This is an important thing to bear in mind, but it does not tell the entire story. In addition, much other information appears automatically classified, including:

  1.  Information related to transfer of uranium, plutonium, or any other nuclear material to a member country;
  2. Information related to transfer of sensitive technologies (nuclear reactors, hot-labs, other related equipment, etc.);
  3. Personal files of IAEA employees;
  4. Information related to programs of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP);
  5. Reports on nuclear accidents.[8]

I stress that this is an incomplete list, based on my own experience in the IAEA Archives, and it can be expected that a number of other categories of documents are also automatically classified.[9] Although these restrictions create huge problems for researchers, some of the related information that classified documents contain can be gathered from other sources in the IAEA Archives. These “back roads” will be discussed later.

Before Arriving to the IAEA Archives

Considering the abovementioned peculiarities, one’s research approach at the IAEA Archives must be adjusted in comparison to other archives. The best strategy for researchers is to simply increase  the amount of time originally planned for the research (my personal suggestion would be doubling), due to the many time consuming problems previously discussed.

The second step is to get in touch with the employees of the Archives by email.[10] Contact should be established well in advance of the start of research (at least one month) in order to help archivists to pre-select the material prior to researcher’s arrival. In some cases, depending on the research topic(s), the result of this “long-distance” research can be helpful both for archivists and the researcher, especially in discovering which material is, in general, available and which is confidential. At the same time, this will help archivists to get more acquainted with the researcher’s topic before their arrival, which is essential for them to provide adequate material without much delay. Researchers should also keep in mind that archivists simply do not have enough time to immediately perform research when they receive initial inquiries, no matter how much they are open and willing to provide the assistance to researchers. Patience is required. An additional hurdle is that, prior to issuing any document to researchers, archivists must review whether they hold any kind of confidential information, even if the given collection or folder is not marked as confidential. Obviously, this process requires significant time that must be considered when planning one’s trip to the IAEA archives.

Finally, a researcher should examine all of the information provided by archivists about the working environment and rules in advance, but most importantly about the structure of the Archives’ holdings. While this advice can be applied as a general suggestion for any kind of archival research, in this case it carries much more weight due to the abovementioned restrictions.

Researching in the IAEA Archives

Depending on the research topic, period, or questions, the IAEA Archives can be an excellent source of information; it can also be one’s biggest “enemy” if such information is still classified or spread across multiple series. In this section, I offer several strategies which may be useful while conducting research in the IAEA Archives. However, it must be emphasized that these suggestions should not be taken as completely fail-safe. Each approach must be adapted to the researcher’s specific topic. Becoming acquainted with Fitzpatrick’s observations about practices in Soviet archives may be a useful starting point to prepare for some of the experiences a researcher might encounter at the IAEA archives.[11]

Review the IAEA’s online resources before arrival

Prior to visiting the IAEA Archives, one of the easiest ways to navigate through the sheer volume of the existing archival material is to investigate the IAEA’s online digital resources. Much of this material is too general and offers only a “bird’s eye” perspective, but it can be useful in getting acquainted with the Agency’s work and the type of archival material that can be found.[12] Another effective shortcut is the analysis of publications deposited in the IAEA Library.[13] Many of the Library’s digital resources are available only from the IAEA’s premises, making a visit to the IAEA necessary for access. However, the Library also holds a great number of the Agency’s printed publications and reports on different projects, which are particularly important for researchers focusing on different countries’ nuclear programs executed in cooperation with the IAEA. Library collections are easy to search through digital finding aids, which are readily available online without any restrictions. Most of these published reports and documents can also be found in collections of the IAEA Archives, but sometimes it takes several days to discover their location (which collection or archival box they are located in), and even more time to find them among the great number of other documents. Of course, not all of the IAEA’s documents and printed reports are available in the Library, and for more focused research it is necessary to visit the Archives. Nevertheless, using the IAEA Library can be time-saving and should be combined with one’s research in the Archives as a general rule.

Search correspondence for leads and reference numbers

Many of the documents in the Archives’ holdings (independent of collection or series) are purely administrative correspondence among IAEA officials or between the IAEA and a given country’s representatives. This is an expected problem, visible in the archives of any institution of this size and importance, but one that makes any research time-consuming. However, sifting through this correspondence is not always in vain. These letters, telegrams, thank-you notes, and other items often contain information about particular documents or reports which could be interesting to researchers, and more importantly, the number or code by which they are deposited in the archive. While this information does not guarantee that a particular document is declassified, it can help both researchers and archivists pinpoint the location of materials which would otherwise take much more time to find. At the very least it can help researchers to better understand the issue they are investigating and to develop more elaborate research approaches.

Search within the “Technical Assistance and Technical Cooperation” collection

As stressed previously, much of the most interesting material for researchers is still classified. While this problem is next to impossible to tackle, I have found one possible work-around for this obstacle. The “Technical Assistance and Technical Cooperation” collection (series) is an invaluable resource, especially for researchers that are investigating a particular country’s nuclear program. This collection contains reports dealing mostly with joint projects with the IAEA (development or transfer of certain technologies for civilian purposes, construction of nuclear research or power reactors, use of nuclear energy in agriculture, medicine, etc.). However, these reports often contain considerable information about a given country’s technical capabilities, general level of expertise, capacities to adequately deploy certain technologies related to nuclear programs, IAEA experts’ predictions about future development of a country’s nuclear program, and much more. While this series does not directly reveal any classified information, it can be used as a lens through which a country’s nuclear capabilities can be estimated, based on the opinion of the IAEA experts who wrote these reports.

Initiate the declassification process as a last resort

Finally, there is a formal channel for a researcher to initiate the declassification process on a certain document or sets of documents. However, this procedure is extremely time consuming and comes without any promise of a positive outcome. Declassification requests must be submitted by the IAEA Archives directly to the General Director’s Office, where it is then transferred to the Office of Legal Affairs. There, all of the information contained in the desired document(s) is checked alongside with their legal status, after which a report and recommendation is returned to the General Director’s Office for a final decision. Without going into detail, it can be said that the entire procedure is highly bureaucratic, terribly slow, and holds only theoretical prospects of having any documents declassified. Therefore, this avenue of access should only be pursued as a last resort.

Conclusion and Final Suggestions

From the initial inquiry, to arriving at the IAEA archives, and throughout one’s research visit, it is essential to communicate with the archivists on a daily basis. They are fully aware of the type and content of materials in their collection, as well as any restrictions on these materials. At the same time, archivists cannot fully know the researcher’s plans or projects, so the best possible suggestion is for researcher’s to be highly descriptive in explaining (in oral or written form) what kind of information is desired. On the other hand, the IAEA Archives is understaffed, and the archivists cannot simultaneously perform their daily duties and provide speedy assistance to researchers until more staff are hired. The easiest solution to this problem would be to make the existing finding aids available to researchers, preferably online through the IAEA’s website, but at least on the IAEA’s premises. This would relieve the archivists from some of the workload associated with helping researchers. Until then, researchers must rely on their ability to explain their plans and the kind of information they are interested in to the archivists.

The declassification procedure as currently designed appears to be a dead-end. The importance of the information collected in the IAEA Archives cannot be stressed enough, and in that respect, the procedure for declassifying specific documents based on researchers’ requests should be simplified and more clearly designed. In a broader perspective, the review and declassification procedures of the IAEA should be revisited in general.[14] The current state of affairs clearly shows that it is difficult to articulate a proper justification for the classification status of much material, especially for documents that are already several decades old. Unfortunately, redesigning the declassification process would require significant investments of time and resources. This appears unlikely to happen.

Finally, no matter what the obstacles may be, or in which directions the IAEA administration might change its attitudes towards visiting researchers, the Agency’s archives remain one of the main resources for a variety of topics related to the history of nuclear proliferation. In that respect, I can only advise researchers to make careful advance preparations and, expecting some obstacles, embark with confidence and patience in their research in the IAEA Archives.

Marko Miljković is a PhD candidate at the Department of History at the Central European University in Budapest (Hungary). His dissertation project is titled “Tito’s Proliferation Puzzle: The Yugoslav Nuclear Program, 1948-1970”.

[1] David Fischer, History of the International Atomic Energy Agency: The First forty Years, Vienna: The Agency, 1997, 1

[2] Beside already mentioned Fischer’s work, another important monograph about the historical development of the IAEA was written by: Lawrence Scheinman, International Atomic Energy Agency and World Nuclear Order. Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. For the more recent analysis, please refer to Robert L. Brown, Nuclear Authority: The IAEA and the Absolute Weapon, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015

[3] My work was supported by a fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation of New York via the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP), in cooperation with the IAEA History Research Project at the University of Vienna.

[4] For example, there is a collection focused only on mail exchanges with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, but since it follows the chronological order, there is a mix of materials not divided in any other subsections.

[5] Anna M. Weichselbraun, “Increasing Transparency at the IAEA Archives,” March 3, 2015, p. 2,, accessed on August 12, 2015

[6] Ibid.

[7] Board of Governors records are still classified, in spite of the 1996 Board decision to declassify all documents two years after being issued. Weichselbraun, p. 2; National Security Archive. The George Washington University, “IAEA Board of Governors: Proposal for the Deristriction of Board Documents,” Gov/2843, February 12, 1996,, accessed on September 18, 2015

[8] This list was made on my personal research experience in the IAEA Archives, not something that I was informed about by the employees. In that respect it is absolutely incomplete, and not necessarily accurate for every research topic or case study.

[9] For example, during my research I found a case of a transfer of certain amount uranium from the United States to Japan in 1958, under the auspices of the IAEA. The Archives holds these documents, although it is impossible to order them since they are still classified. It is understandable why this material was confidential in 1958, but today when Japan can produce both HEU and plutonium in huge quantities, the reasons for keeping this material as classified are difficult to find or justify. 

[10] Researchers should start the inquiry about the existing or declassified material related to their research topics through the official e-mail address of the IAEA Archives ( Although I would suggest getting in touch with Ms Marta Riess, Archives Assistant at the IAEA’s Archives and Record Mangement Section (ARMS), Division of General Services, Department of Management (, who, at least in my case, provided invaluable assistance.

[11] Sheila Fitzpatrick, A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015

[12] IAEA General Conferences,, accessed on September 18, 2015

IAEA Bulletin,, accessed on September 18, 2015

IAEA, International Nuclear Information System,, accessed on September 18, 2015

[13] IAEA Library,, accessed on September 18, 2015

[14] For more detailed suggestions on this problem see also Weichselbraun, pp. 3-4

About the Author

Marko Miljkovic

Marko Miljković

 Institute of Economic Sciences in Belgrade, Serbia

Dr. Marko Miljković is a historian and Research Associate at the Institute of Economic Sciences in Belgrade, Serbia.

Read More

Nuclear Proliferation International History Project

The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more