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Despite Lockdown, IAEA Continues Nuclear Verification and Supports Countries Fighting COVID-19 in Largest Ever Operation, Director General Tells Agency’s Board

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Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi delivering his opening statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on 15 June 2020. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

The IAEA has carried out its largest ever operation by delivering 319 consignments of equipment for COVID-19 detection and diagnosis, personal protective equipment and other supplies to 88 countries, while continuing its normal operations during the coronavirus pandemic, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said today. Shipments of material have been delayed to some other countries due to transport restrictions.

Addressing the first virtual meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors, Mr Grossi said the Agency had adjusted well to the lockdown introduced in March, when almost all staff began working from home, and it had continued to implement safeguards throughout the world to prevent misuse of nuclear material and activities for non-peaceful purposes.

“When 121 countries turned to the Agency for assistance with the virus, we delivered,” Mr Grossi said in a prepared statement. “We remain very conscious of the difficulties many Member States face and fighting the coronavirus will remain our top priority until the pandemic is finally defeated.”

Despite the lockdown, the IAEA continued to carry out all of its most time-critical in-field nuclear verification work, while rescheduling some less urgent activities such as equipment installation and maintenance. “Delivery of most safeguards activities at headquarters and at regional offices continued,” Mr Grossi stated. “We maintained our verification and monitoring activities, including by chartering aircraft for inspectors for the first time in the history of the Agency.”

IAEA staff conducted many pandemic-related activities, including webinars to support thousands of human health specialists in 125 countries, webinars for veterinary experts through the VETLAB network, the evaluation of the efficacy of radiation for sterilising used respiratory masks of hospital staff and assistance to ensure the safety of relief food distributed to those made vulnerable during the lockdown in Uganda.

The Agency launched the COVID-19 Operational Experience Network, which enabled nuclear power plant operators and related organizations to share information on the impact of the pandemic. “Reports from operators and regulators indicate that safety and security are being maintained at nuclear power plants around the world,” Mr Grossi highlighted. “No country has reported the enforced shutdown of a nuclear power reactor due to the effects of COVID-19 on the workforce or supply chains.”

The IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre remained fully operational during the lockdown period.

Mr Grossi announced the launch of the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) project – a global initiative using nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques to help countries to control diseases that cross from animals to humans, and to respond quickly to any outbreaks.

He noted that the coronavirus pandemic had exposed problems such as insufficient capabilities in many countries to detect viruses and other threats to human health, inadequate equipment in laboratories in many developing countries and poor communication between health institutions throughout the world.

The ZODIAC project will establish a global network of national diagnostic laboratories that can conduct coordinated monitoring, surveillance, early detection and control of emerging and re-emerging zoonotic diseases, using nuclear or nuclear-derived techniques. Member States will have access to equipment, technology packages, expertise, guidance and training. “With national laboratories connected to a regional network, and regional networks linked through a global platform, decision-makers will receive up-to-date, user-friendly information that will enable them to act quickly,” Mr Grossi stated. Read more about this initiative in this press release.

Nuclear verification

For the first time, the session of the IAEA Board of Governors took place virtually. On this photo Morakot Sriswasdi, Ambassador of Thailand is addressing the Board. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

The Board of Governors heard that the number of States with safeguards agreements in force has remained at 184, with 136 countries having brought additional protocols into force.

Concerning safeguards implementation in Iran, Mr Grossi said:

“I note with serious concern that, for over four months, Iran has denied us access to two locations and that, for almost a year, it has not engaged in substantive discussions to clarify our questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities. This is adversely affecting the Agency’s ability to resolve the questions and to provide credible assurance of the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities at these locations in Iran. I call on Iran to cooperate immediately and fully with the Agency, including by providing prompt access to the locations specified by us.”

The IAEA continues to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, and evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for Iran have also continued.

The Agency continues to monitor the nuclear programme of North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), using open source information and satellite imagery. No significant recent changes have been observed, Mr Grossi noted. The Agency remains ready to resume verification of the DPRK’s nuclear programme if a political agreement is reached among countries concerned.

Nuclear applications and technical cooperation

Mr Grossi noted an important milestone in the renovation of the IAEA nuclear applications laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria, with the opening of the Yukiya Amano Laboratories building on 5 June. Named after the last IAEA Director General, who died in 2019, the new facilities will strengthen IAEA services in many areas, including in fighting diseases such as COVID-19. Planning continues for the final phase of the project to house the last three unrenovated laboratories in a new building.

In 2019, the IAEA supported 147 countries and territories through its technical cooperation programme, 35 of which were least developed countries. The main focus of work was on health and nutrition, nuclear safety and security and food and agriculture.

Nuclear energy

More than 440 nuclear power reactors are in operation in 30 countries, supplying over 10% of the world’s electricity and around a third of all low-carbon power. Mr Grossi noted that 54 reactors are under construction in 19 countries, four of which are building their first reactor.

The IAEA’s 2020 Scientific Forum, entitled Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition, is scheduled to take place in September. It will focus on how nuclear power can provide science-based solutions to the climate emergency. “Nuclear power plays a key role in the global clean energy transformation,” Mr Grossi said. “It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to meet global climate goals without significant use of nuclear energy. “

Following the launch of the IAEA Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship Programme in March to encourage women to study nuclear subjects and pursue careers in the nuclear field, Mr Grossi said the Agency had received many expressions of support, and concrete pledges from Canada, Norway and the United States. “I hope that many more Member States will follow suit to ensure we can award the first 100 fellows in the 2020-21 academic year.”

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