The IAEA is addressing some of today’s biggest global challenges, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told delegates at the opening of the Agency’s 66th annual General Conference today.
“At the IAEA, we have the ability to mitigate some of these enormous challenges we are facing,” Mr Grossi said. The IAEA and its Member States are harnessing the benefits of nuclear science and technology to better prepare for the next zoonotic disease outbreak; to mitigate and adapt to climate change; to improve food and water security; to fight cancer; and to clean up the ocean.
The IAEA has also responded to emergencies with missions as different as those to Ukraine in efforts to prevent war from causing a nuclear accident and experts’ visits to Latin America to assist Andean nations in preventing Fusarium Wilt from decimating their economically critical banana crops.
◆ Nuclear safety and security in Ukraine
Nuclear safety and security in Ukraine are top priorities for the IAEA. “We must do everything in our power to prevent a nuclear accident that would add tragedy to the suffering,” Mr Grossi said. Shelling has put into peril Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) – and repeatedly interrupted its external power supplies.
Following a recent mission to the site, Mr Grossi proposed establishing a nuclear safety and security protection zone to ensure the physical integrity of the plant. The proposal has garnered strong international support. Last week, Mr Grossi met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as part of talks with all parties aimed at reaching an agreement on the zone’s establishment. “I am ready to continue consultations in both countries this week,” Mr Grossi told the delegates at the General Conference today.
The IAEA has established a permanent presence at ZNPP, and Mr Grossi particularly recognized the IAEA personnel on the ground.
◆ Energy and climate crisis
In his speech, Mr Grossi highlighted the role of nuclear energy in helping countries to meet their energy needs and in addressing the ‘existential crisis’ of climate change. Today the 430 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries supply about 10 per cent of the world’s electricity and around a quarter of all low-carbon electricity. Furthermore, there are 57 reactors under construction in 18 countries, according to the IAEA’s Power Reactor Information System (PRIS).
The IAEA has revised up its annual projections of the potential growth of nuclear power capacity to 2050. The climate crisis and the energy crisis have prompted more countries to look to nuclear power as part of the solution, Mr Grossi said. “Many of you, especially from developing countries, are coming to us saying, ‘We also want to benefit from this clean source of energy, in particular in its new manifestation through small modular reactors,” he said. “The Agency is going to help to build the capacities that you need and deserve.”
Next month, the IAEA together with the United States, will host the International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Power in the 21st Century, in Washington DC, from 26 to 28 October. It will offer a forum for government leaders, industry representatives, policy makers and experts from around the world to discuss the key challenges and opportunities nuclear power presents in the context of energy security and climate change. In November, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) will take place in Egypt, where the IAEA will host a nuclear pavilion.
◆ Atoms for peace and development
The Agency’s work on nuclear applications has broad implications for societies, the environment and economies. Mr Grossi cited several examples. “Many countries are working with us, increasing their capacities to fight cancer. We have the technology, we know how to do it, and we do it in close cooperation with WHO [World Health Organization],” he said, referring to Rays of Hope, an initiative launched in February to help countries increase access to cancer care either by establishing or expanding their capabilities in this area.
In the same spirit of cooperation, the IAEA is working with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to address food security, Mr Grossi said. The Agency is assisting countries in using nuclear science and technology to increase resilience to the impacts of climate change, to improve sustainable management of land and water, and to reform food and farming systems. Food and agriculture remain a top priority for IAEA Member States. Together they accounted for almost a quarter of the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme in 2021.
The Agency is also leveraging its laboratories and known-how to address another major environmental challenge: plastic pollution. NUTEC Plastics (NUclear TEChnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution), another IAEA flagship initiative, has “captured the imagination and will of many around the world”, Mr Grossi said. NUTEC Plastics helps countries harness environmentally friendly radiation techniques to recycle plastic and use isotopic tracing to better understand the problem of marine microplastic pollution.
◆ Nuclear non-proliferation
The IAEA has risen to the challenge of inspecting greater quantities of nuclear material and increasing numbers of facilities to assure the international community of their peaceful uses. “We are known as the nuclear watchdog, and we take this task very seriously. We must prevent nuclear proliferation,” Mr Grossi said. “We must make sure that this blessing of nuclear energy for peace and development is not turned into an instrument of destruction and suffering.”
Mr Grossi noted that the Agency’s verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, have been seriously affected by Iran’s decision to stop the implementation of those commitments, including the Additional Protocol.
With regard to the NPT Safeguards Agreement, the Agency has made efforts to engage with Iran to resolve outstanding issues related to the presence of uranium particles of anthropogenic origin at three undeclared locations in Iran.
“We need to find common solutions for problems that are not going to go away if we don’t solve them in a collaborative fashion,” he said.
With regards to naval nuclear propulsion, “the IAEA must provide the necessary and indispensable technical answers to this issue, which is foreseen in the existing legal framework,” Mr Grossi said. The Agency has its verification and non-proliferation mandate as its guiding principle, he added.