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IAEA Highlights and Achievements in 2020 – a Year in Review

2020 - Looking back

In a year marked by COVID-19, the IAEA provided support to its Member States related to the pandemic while also delivering its planned services – some of them online. This article summarizes some of the key events and achievements of this very unusual year.

It was not all COVID-19 though. A first group of 100 female students from around the world has been awarded fellowships under a new initiative, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP), to help close the gender gap in nuclear science and technology.

With 2020 marking 10 years of the Peaceful Uses Initiative, we celebrated the over 300 projects and more than 150 countries that have benefited from the peaceful application of nuclear technologies through this initiative. Read the latest issue of the IAEA Bulletin on the achievements of PUI and plans for scaling up the initiative in coming years.

The IAEA held its third International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS) from 10 to 14 February at its headquarters in Vienna, Austria. It was the only in-person Conference in 2020 at which 57 ministers and more than 2000 experts from over 130 countries and 35 international organizations reaffirmed their commitment for strengthening nuclear security globally. Government ministers and other high-level representatives unanimously adopted a Ministerial Declaration.


Real time RT-PCR is the most accurate method to detect the COVID-19 virus. TheI IAEA, in partnership with FAO, has been helping countries use this technique to detect zoonotic diseases for decades. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

As the world grapples with COVID‑19, the IAEA has adjusted ways of working to ensure its operations continue with minimal disruptions under the extraordinary circumstances.

During the year, the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), provided diagnostic kits, equipment and training in nuclear-derived detection techniques through its technical cooperation programme to over 120 countries asking for assistance in tackling the worldwide spread of the virus causing COVID-19.

A series of COVID-19 related webinars was launched by the IAEA. These expert-led sessions aim to share knowledge and best practices to support health professionals working in radiation medicine — radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, diagnostic imaging — during the global pandemic. For more information, visit the COVID-19 Webinar page.

In addition, scientists from veterinary laboratories in several countries, including Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia, have been trained by the IAEA and FAO to use genome sequencing to characterize the virus that causes COVID-19.

To ensure continuous operations during the Covid-19 crisis, the IAEA was accelerating its efforts to support nuclear installation operators around the world by facilitating knowledge exchange through the International Reporting System for Operating Experience (IRS) and the newly established COVID-19 Operational Experience Network.

A survey conducted by the IAEA among nuclear regulatory bodies in over 90 countries found that regulators were using innovative methods to adapt to the changing circumstances to ensure that safety is not compromised.

In addition, the IAEA organized free webinars related to COVID-19 in radiation protection, bringing together worldwide experts to share knowledge and expertise, strengthening radiation protection efforts, and ensuring continuity of all services under the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre conducted about 100 webinars with over 12,000 participants, and the first-ever virtual Technical Meeting to review Safety Standards on emergency preparedness and response was organized.

The IAEA maintained its safeguards implementation activities to ensure that nuclear material is not diverted from peaceful purposes despite the unprecedented disruption caused by the pandemic. For the first time, the IAEA chartered aircraft to enable its inspectors to reach their destinations.

Climate change

Addressing climate change, one of the world’s greatest challenges, this year’s Scientific Forum focused on Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition. A key outcome of the Forum was the conclusion that nuclear power must have a seat at the table in global discussions over energy policies to curb emissions and meet climate goals.

The IAEA published the proceedings from its 2019 Conference on climate change. In addition, the latest edition of the IAEA’s Climate Change and Nuclear Power series, published in September, draws on past and present data to demonstrate the need for expanding the role of nuclear power in the fight against climate change.

Nuclear power

In March, the IAEA concluded an Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review mission to Belarus. This Phase 3 mission provided recommendations and suggestions to assist Belarus in making further progress to commission and operate its first nuclear power plant. A few months later, Belarus – as well as the United Arab Emirates – connected their first reactors to the grid following a decade of working with the IAEA on developing the necessary infrastructure for their nuclear power programme.

In June, the IAEA published the proceedings of the 2019 International Conference on the Management of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors.

In close cooperation with the European Commission and the OECD/NEA, the IAEA launched a new database for spent fuel and radioactive waste that facilitates information sharing and simplifies national reporting in a single easy-to-use platform.

In September, the IAEA published the new edition of the biennial booklet Advances in Small Modular Reactor Technology Developments. The publication, focused on one of the most promising emerging technologies in nuclear power, can help countries identify reactor designs to suit their needs as they look for reliable and affordable energy sources to slash greenhouse gas emissions and drive sustainable development.

In October, the International Conference on Management of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) in Industry, held virtually, brought together regulators and representatives from various industries with a common goal: transforming liabilities into possibilities. The conference raised awareness about NORM among industry, government, regulators and other stakeholders, with the aim of establishing strategies to manage NORM wastes and residues and find solutions that are both cost-effective and safe for the public and workers.

Technical Cooperation

Support provided to over 120 Member States, covered above in the COVID-19 section of this article, has been the IAEA’s largest technical cooperation project to date.

The technical cooperation programme has been active in other areas as well. Particular efforts were made to engage and reach out to young professionals and budding nuclear experts, both through the IAEA’s continued support of Post-Graduate Educational Courses, as well as our participation in international youth events.

In the area of pest control and management, ongoing efforts to study and control invasive flies in the Galapagos Islands and throughout Europe are of note. In Latin America and the Caribbean support is provided to help address pests which reduce fruit and vegetable production by up to 30%.

A socioeconomic impact assessment of crop mutation breeding projects in 19 Asia and the Pacific countries has been published. It is the first of its kind study, demonstrating how farmers and consumers alike benefit from increased food production, enhanced environmental protection and positive economic impact, while reducing the use of water resources and pesticides.

To continue deliver in these challenging times, the IAEA’s Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT) together with the World Health Organization has introduced a mix of online evaluations and face-to-face meetings in order to support country’s in cancer control. PACT also held a series of webinars with the Islamic Development Bank attracting more than 40 donors and new partners, to identify the best way to pool resources and expertise to address women’s cancers.

In Indonesia, nuclear technologies are being used to characterize, preserve and restore historical cultural artefacts. Asia is home to some of the earliest examples of written literature. Such documents and other treasured items represent a legacy which enriches humanity today and must be preserved for future generations.

Support was provided to countries looking to expand their nuclear power programmes. Pakistan, for example, is seeking to streamline its national power programme, while European countries are looking at options to decarbonize their energy and industrial sectors. Meanwhile countries in Latin America are developing energy scenarios to help optimize the use of energy resources, diversify supply, assure its safe and secure provision as well as affordability, and reduce any environmental implications.

Finally, Uganda is piloting a new radioactive waste management technique. As part of a larger 32 country ‘cradle to grave’ project in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and in Latin America, the IAEA is assisting Uganda to use cost effective procedures to process, condition and store disused sealed radioactive sources, which is essential to ensure the safety and security of people and the environment from the potential adverse effects of ionizing radiation.

Nuclear sciences and applications

A new global initiative will use nuclear science to better manage pandemic threats, such as COVID-19.

In February, the IAEA and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) pledged to increase collaboration to tackle cervical cancer, especially to help low- and middle- income countries, where 85 per cent of annual cervical cancer deaths occur.

The IAEA and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) joined forces in April to better protect human health and global ecosystems from sustained releases of mercury and its toxic derivative compounds into the environment.

In June, the IAEA launched the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) project, an initiative to support countries in preventing and quickly responding to future outbreaks of diseases that spread from animals to humans. ZODIAC will expand and make global the VETLAB network, through which veterinary labs exchange information, share best practices and support each other.

This year, the Renovation of the Nuclear Applications Laboratories (ReNuAL) project achieved important milestones. In June, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi opened a state of the art laboratory building named after his late predecessor, Yukiya Amano. The new facility will increase the IAEA’s capacity to assist countries to fight and prevent transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 and to tackle challenges related to climate change and food safety.

In September, Mr Grossi announced to Member States ReNuAL 2, a new effort to tackle the laboratories that have not yet been modernized under the ReNuAL Project. This includes the construction of a new building to house the Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory, the Terrestrial Environment Laboratory and the Nuclear Sciences and Instrumentation Laboratory. To achieve ReNuAL 2, the IAEA is calling for the mobilisation of €14.8 million by mid-2021.

The Biological Dosimetry Model Laboratory (BDML) was established at the IAEA Seibersdorf site. A new advanced microscope-based platform capable of identifying and quantifying radiation exposure in people was donated to the IAEA and installed at the BDML.

The IAEA designated three new collaborating centres: in the United Kingdom, Italy and Portugal.

In November, the International Conference on Molecular Imaging and Clinical PET-CT in the Era of Theranostics (IPET-2020)  highlighted important clinical aspects and appropriate use of medical imaging in the management of patients with breast, lung, lymphoma, neuroendocrine tumours, paediatric, prostate and thyroid cancers.

To mark the milestone of twenty-five years, 180 analytical experts from around the world shared knowledge and expertise and discussed new ways of expanding the Network’s capacity at the annual Coordination Meeting of ALMERA. In addition, the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation (GNIP) turned sixty this year.

The IAEA has launched its updated Database on Industrial Irradiation Facilities (DIIF), featuring an interactive map with information on nearly 300 gamma irradiators and electron accelerators from around the world.

Nuclear safety and security

Experts from an IAEA response assistance mission to Lebanon measure radiation levels at a scrapyard in Beirut on 14 September 2020. (Photo: K. Smith/IAEA)

The IAEA launched its first Training in Safety Culture in Medicine, where 25 participants discussed and reviewed future IAEA training material (launched later, in May), which supports medical professionals in strengthening patterns of good behaviour and attitudes.

In October, at an online Technical Meeting, international organizations and professional bodies discussed the further work needed to strengthen justification and optimization of protection of patients whose medical conditions might require multiple medical imaging procedures.

In November, more than 2000 participants from 140 countries and 13 international organizations attended the two-week online International Conference on Radiation Safety and agreed on 10 key priority areas in radiation protection.

In early December, a Meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2021 Conference of the Parties to the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (2021 Conference) took place. As stated in the text of the Convention, the Conference is meant to “review the implementation of this Convention and its adequacy as concerns the preamble, the whole of the operative part and the annexes in the light of the then prevailing situation”.

At the annual meeting of the Forum of Nuclear Regulatory Bodies in Africa (FNRBA), over 200 participants agreed that enhancing collaboration both within and between countries in Africa in nuclear safety and security is key to strong, sustainable regulation on the continent.

Emerging technologies are becoming available to nuclear industry to enhance safety and improve efficiencies at nuclear installations. Specifically, with rapid advances in digital technologies, smart digital devices such as smart sensor transmitters, electrical protective devices and variable speed drives, are increasingly used at many nuclear power plants. The safety aspects of the use of such devices were discussed at a meeting at the IAEA this year.

2020 also saw the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) respond to a site emergency at the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in Finland, conduct an IAEA assistance mission in Beirut and respond to Member State and public concerns regarding the discovery of airborne radioactivity in northern Europe and the possible health consequences posed by wildfires in the Exclusion Zone near the former Chornobyl nuclear power plant.

The IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund received more than 50 million euros this year, the highest annual amount ever received.


In July, the IAEA issued an Expression of Interest for ideas to improve the ‘passive loop seal’, an important part of the toolkit of the IAEA's nuclear inspectors. The seals provide important evidence of any unauthorized attempt to gain access to the secured material. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Released in June, the Safeguards Statement for 2019 highlighted that the total number of nuclear facilities and other locations under safeguards continued to increase, as did the amount of nuclear material for which the IAEA applies safeguards.

The IAEA continued to verify and monitor the implementation by Iran of its nuclear-related commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reported developments quarterly to the IAEA Board of Governors. During 2020, the IAEA interacted with Iran to clarify information relating to the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations under its Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol.

Following a visit to Tehran by the Director General in August, the IAEA was able to conduct complementary access to two locations in Iran not declared to the Agency. It needs a full and prompt explanation for the presence of uranium particles of anthropogenic origin, including isotopically altered particles of low enriched uranium, at another location in Iran not declared to the Agency, Mr Grossi said.

The IAEA continued to monitor the nuclear programme of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, using open source information and satellite imagery. The IAEA remains ready to play an essential role in verifying the nuclear programme of the country, also known as North Korea, if a political agreement is reached among the countries concerned.

A new initiative, the IAEA Comprehensive Capacity-Building Initiative for SSACs and SRAs (COMPASS), launched at the IAEA’s 64th General Conference will help to further strengthen support to States in the accounting and control of nuclear material, while also facilitating the IAEA’s nuclear verification work.

Mr Grossi has called on 31 countries which still have an old-style nuclear safeguards agreement to agree to stricter verification measures as part of efforts to further strengthen the global non-proliferation inspection regime.

In January, technologists from around the world gathered at the Emerging Technologies Workshop in Vienna, to discuss opportunities to incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning advances into nuclear material surveillance and associated analysis, and visualization enhancements to aid the interpretation and communication of nuclear verification information.

The IAEA looks to identify new technologies with possible applications for safeguards, and regularly holds online technology challenges to identify and support their development. In July, the IAEA issued an Expression of Interest for new suggestions and ideas to improve what is known as the ‘passive loop seal’, an important part of the toolkit of the IAEA's nuclear inspectors.


Last update: 04 Jan 2021

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