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IAEA Highlights and Achievements in 2021 – A Year in Review


Another year, the second in the pandemic, is coming to an end. Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, the IAEA made significant achievements in 2021.

The IAEA, for the first time, had a significant presence at a United Nations Climate Change Conference: COP26 in Glasgow, highlighting the role of nuclear technologies in the global fight against climate change. The IAEA organized several events at COP 26 and Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi led a delegation of experts, for discussions on the benefits of nuclear science and technology, including nuclear power, in climate change mitigation, adaptation, and monitoring. 

The IAEA welcomed Samoa as its 173rd Member State. The IAEA has also established a number of new partnerships with other international organizations, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) as well as with NGOs like Women in Nuclear Global (WiN) this year.

The IAEA strives to achieve gender balance in the Secretariat and to increase the participation of women in the nuclear sector at large. As part of this work, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme was established in 2020 and this year, the first scholarship recipients graduate with master’s degrees in various nuclear-related disciplines.

The IAEA also launched numerous new initiatives in 2021, including NUclear TEChnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution (NUTEC Plastics), which helps countries integrate nuclear techniques into their strategies to address marine plastic pollution.

The IAEA has continued to verify and monitor the implementation by Iran of its nuclear related commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, since February 2021, verification and monitoring activities have been affected as a result of Iran’s decision to stop the implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. A series of temporary agreements between Iran and the IAEA maintained continuity of knowledge for much of the year.

Climate Change and COP26

Action Hub Event #Atoms4Climate at the COP26 Climate Change Conference 2021, Glasgow, Scottish Event Campus, Scotland. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

At the COP26 climate summit, the IAEA, alongside several governments, various organizations and youth groups, helped to put nuclear science and technology on the agenda. Continuing to support countries in the use nuclear science and technology to combat climate change, the IAEA organized several high level events to draw attention to the vital role of nuclear energy in tackling the climate crisis and raise awareness of how nuclear science and technology already significantly support climate change adaptation and monitoring.

During the summit, Mr Grossi was interviewed on site by major media outlets about the role of nuclear technologies in combatting climate change, and gave an interview to the live Action Hub by a Financial Times Journalist on how the world can manage to overcome both the climate crisis and the energy supply crisis. On the sidelines of the event, Mr Grossi met dozens of world leaders and decision makers to discuss ways their countries and regions could benefit from nuclear science and its many applications in the fight against climate change. The IAEA held a high level multi-stakeholder conversation on “Nuclear Innovation for a Net Zero World”, where panellists discussed the need for international cooperation in enabling the transition to Net Zero. Several other IAEA events showcased the role of nuclear to help adapt the management of agricultural systems and natural resources to cope with challenges posed by climate change.

In the run-up to COP26, the IAEA held webinars and issued reports to highlight the important role that nuclear power, along with other low-carbon energy sources, has in the fight against climate change and in achieving the sustainable development goals. It issued a report, Nuclear Science and Technology for Climate Adaptation and Resilience, on how nuclear techniques can help the world adapt to a changing climate and become more resilient to extreme weather events. Another special report, Nuclear Energy for a Net Zero World, highlighted nuclear power’s critical role in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development by displacing coal and other fossil fuels, enabling the further deployment of renewable energy and becoming an economical source for large amounts of clean hydrogen.

Nuclear Power

Inside of the JEEP II reactor at the Kjeller research centre, Norway. (Photo: IFE)

For the first time since the Fukushima Daiichi accident a decade ago, the IAEA has revised upwards its projections of the growth of nuclear power capacity for electricity generation during the coming decades. The change in the IAEA’s annual outlook for this low-carbon energy source comes as the world aims to move away from fossil fuels to fight climate change.

Beside the IAEA report Nuclear Energy for a Net Zero World, new studies were published as part of a three year Coordinated Research Project (CRP) to further illustrate the potential scope for increasing the use of nuclear power to support stronger national climate change mitigation goals.

The IAEA released its first guide-level publication, Stakeholder Engagement in Nuclear Programmes, to support national efforts to engage with stakeholders throughout the life cycle of all nuclear facilities—from uranium mining and new and operating reactors to non-electric applications, radioactive waste management and decommissioning.

In September, the IAEA launched its Platform on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and their Applications, aimed at supporting countries worldwide in the development and deployment of this emerging nuclear power technology. It provides experts with a one-stop shop to access the IAEA’s full array of support and expertise on SMRs, from technology development and deployment (including non-electric applications) to nuclear safety, security and safeguards.

Nuclear Science and Applications

Recognition of ReNuAl2 Contributors. (Photo: IAEA)

In September, the IAEA dedicated its Scientific Forum to investigate how nuclear science can further help the world prepare for future zoonotic outbreaks. Panellists of the Scientific Forum recognized the IAEA’s Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative as important and timely for enhancing response preparedness to pandemics using nuclear and related techniques. The forum further concluded that closer coordination, collaboration, and communication towards scientific advancements in research, early detection and monitoring of zoonotic diseases are key in preventing or containing the next epidemic or pandemic such as COVID-19.

The 28th IAEA Fusion Energy Conference (FEC 2020) was organized by the IAEA and hosted by the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and the ITER Organization, showcasing the latest advancements in fusion science and technology. It was postponed to May 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and took place virtually, gathering almost 4,000 participants from around the world. The week-long conference explored key physics and technology issues as well as innovative concepts of direct relevance to the use of nuclear fusion as a future source of energy. The conference included more than 100 scientific presentations delivered by leading researchers and engineers in fusion science and technology development; numerous virtual tours of ITER and other fusion research labs; virtual exhibition booths; and various side events on topics including the history of the FEC series, the role of women in fusion and education opportunities in fusion.

On 30 September 2021, the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco celebrated their 60th anniversary. These unique research facilities within the UN system were created to provide IAEA Member States with the tools and knowledge necessary to understand and tackle pressing marine environmental challenges. The IAEA organized a number of onsite and offsite events to commemorate the anniversary.

The IAEA held its first ever technical meeting on artificial intelligence (AI) for nuclear technology and applications in October, providing a synopsis of the current state-of-the-art, outlining challenges and identifying opportunities for accelerating progress on the applications of AI in nuclear science, technology, and applications — from human health to water and environment to food and agriculture, to nuclear data and nuclear physics, and also nuclear fusion, nuclear power, nuclear security, radiation protection and safeguards verification. The event launched a global dialogue on the potential of AI in the nuclear field and the related implications of its use, including ethics and transparency. At the AI for Good Global Summit 2021, the IAEA also joined the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and 37 other UN organizations to work together in identifying AI applications that accelerate reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

With a steady increase in the number of donor countries, including both developing and first-time contributing nations, the latest phase of a major project to refurbish the IAEA’s nuclear applications laboratories in Seibersdorf, near Vienna, is approaching the next milestone: construction start. In September, Mr Grossi unveiled a new donor recognition display to honour contributors to the Renovation of the Nuclear Applications Laboratories (ReNuAL2) phase of the modernization initiative. ReNuAL2 will deliver a new building to house three laboratories: the Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory, the Nuclear Sciences and Instrumentation Laboratory and the Terrestrial Environment Laboratory, as well as new greenhouses, and will complete the modernization of the Dosimetry Laboratory. Construction is planned to begin in the first quarter of 2022, with an expected completion date by the end of 2023.

This year, the IAEA held a series of regional NUTEC Plastic roundtable events and discussed nuclear solutions to marine plastic pollution with partners from Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific as well as Europe and Central Asia. At the meetings, IAEA experts presented NUTEC Plastics, which helps countries integrate nuclear techniques into their strategies to address plastic pollution. NUTEC Plastics builds on the IAEA’s efforts to deal with plastic pollution through marine monitoring using isotopic tracing techniques and recycling using radiation technology. It provides science-based evidence to characterize and assess marine microplastic pollution, while also demonstrating the use of ionizing radiation in plastic recycling, transforming plastic waste into reusable resources.

Nuclear Safety and Security

Experts from the IAEA and the Center for Nuclear Technology Research and Development in La Paz, Bolivia, identifying potential security layers around the multipurpose irradiator. (Photo: Bolivian Nuclear Energy Agency (ABEN))

Ways of further strengthening nuclear safety worldwide over the next ten years was the key focus of the International Conference on a Decade of Progress after Fukushima-Daiichi, held in November in Vienna. Participants looked back on lessons learned and actions taken since the accident, and identified ways to further strengthen nuclear safety. They emphasised the approach of continuous improvement, which involves countries assessing safety enhancements on an ongoing basis, utilizing state-of-the-art hazard and risk assessment methodologies. The importance of effective communication with the public was also underlined as an essential element to build trust, establish the credibility of decision-makers, and to support a robust emergency preparedness and response framework.

The International Conference on the Development of Preparedness for National and International Emergency Response, held in October 2021, at IAEA headquarters in Vienna and online for virtual participants, brought together over 550 in-person participants and virtual observers from 90 countries. Participants concluded that cooperation and coordination under a unified management system with a clear understanding of roles and specific responsibilities, which are tested regularly and involve all relevant stakeholders, are crucial to ensuring effective emergency preparedness and response to nuclear and radiological emergencies.

The International Conference on the Safe and Secure Transport of Radioactive Materials was held virtually in December. The objective of the conference was to provide an opportunity for participants to further their understanding of the issues relating to transport safety, transport security and the interface between, to inform their work to develop or strengthen their transport safety and security regulatory infrastructures.

In October, the IAEA, along with 77 Member States and 12 international organizations, organized a two-day international emergency exercise that tested responses to a simulated accident at a nuclear power. Large scale exercises of this kind – so called Convention Exercises Level 3, or ‘ConvEx-3’ — are the IAEA’s highest level and most complex emergency exercises.

Participants at the IAEA International Conference on Radioactive Waste Management: Solutions for a Sustainable Future, held in November at IAEA headquarters in Vienna and online, reviewed the progress and the latest practices in dealing with radioactive waste.

Continuous progress in the application of the Code of Conduct on the Safety of Research Reactors by authorities and operators around the world has strengthened nuclear safety globally. The results of the IAEA assistance to Member States in application of the Code resulted in significant safety improvements, including with respect to safety of reactors under extended shutdown, improving regulatory oversight, and ageing management.

This year marks the establishment of the IAEA Nuclear Security Training and Demonstration Centre, in Seibersdorf, which is expected to be operational in 2023. This facility will help strengthen countries’ abilities to tackle nuclear terrorism in areas such as the illegal trafficking of nuclear material and the physical protection of facilities and major public events.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the IAEA’s International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS) with 96 reviews, including 22 follow-up reviews, in 57 countries. IPPAS, is a peer review service in which international experts and IAEA specialists review nuclear security in a country or at a facility. Under IPPAS missions, an international team of experts reviews a country’s nuclear security regime and compares it with international guidelines and best practices, in particular the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (A/CPPNM) and the IAEA Nuclear Security Series (NSS).

Technical Cooperation

In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, at least 280 aspiring radiation protection professionals received training in English and Russian through post-graduate courses. (Photo: International Sakharov Environmental Institute, Belarus)

The IAEA technical cooperation programme supported 146 countries this year, including 35 least developed countries. 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 through its participation in international youth events and promotion of youth engagement.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IAEA continued its efforts started in 2020 to provide support to countries worldwide with the delivery of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing equipment and materials. The IAEA has been responding to countries’ requests for assistance since the early days of the pandemic and has so far supplied more than 300 laboratories in 130 countries with diagnostic equipment and associated accessories. It has also provided online training and one-to-one support to laboratories. The IAEA, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) continues to provide assistance, standard operating procedures, reagent information and validation data to experts worldwide.

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the IAEA has continued to actively support its Member States in the use of nuclear technology for development, assisting with the preparation and signing a record number of 18 Country Programme Frameworks (CPF) this year. A Country Programme Framework (CPF), prepared by a national government in collaboration with the Secretariat, defines mutually agreed priority development needs and interests to be supported through technical cooperation activities.


IAEA safeguards inspectors at work, verifying the peaceful use of nuclear material. (Photo: IAEA)

Published in June, the Safeguards Statement for 2020 highlights that the amount of nuclear material and the number of nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards are growing steadily, as well as presents the IAEA’s findings and safeguards conclusions for all States for which the IAEA implemented safeguards during the year. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the IAEA managed to retain its ability to draw independent and soundly based safeguards conclusions and performed all of its most time-critical in-field nuclear verification work.

During 2021, the IAEA continued to verify and monitor the implementation by Iran of its nuclear-related commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, since February 2021, verification and monitoring activities were affected as a result of Iran’s decision to stop the implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. In February, a temporary agreement between Iran and the IAEA in February facilitated the maintenance of continuity of knowledge. In May, Mr Grossi said he had agreed with Iran to extend by one month the necessary verification and monitoring activities carried out by the Agency in the country. In September, the Vice-President and the Head of AEOI and IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi released a Joint Statement during his visit to Tehran. In December, the IAEA and Iran reached an agreement on installing new surveillance cameras at Iran’s Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing workshop.

Nuclear activities of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, remain a cause for serious concern for the IAEA. Mr Grossi stressed that the Agency was intensifying its readiness to play its essential role in verifying the DPRK’s nuclear programme.

Last update: 06 Jan 2022

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