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Nuclear Verification Continues Despite 'Unprecedented' Year, IAEA Director General Says

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IAEA 64th General Conference

The 64th IAEA General Conference is taking place from 21 to 25 September 2020. (Photo: K.Nikolic/IAEA)

The IAEA has maintained its safeguards implementation activities to ensure that nuclear material is not diverted from peaceful purposes despite the unprecedented disruption caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said today.

“We continued to carry out all of our most time-critical in-field verification work, while rescheduling some less urgent activities, such as equipment installation and maintenance,” Mr Grossi told the IAEA’s 64th General Conference. “For the first time, we chartered aircraft to enable our inspectors to reach their destinations. I am grateful for the support of Member States that made this possible.”

The General Conference is the biggest annual meeting of the Agency’s 172 Member States. It normally attracts as many as 3,000 participants and many countries are represented at ministerial level. This year, numbers are greatly reduced because of the pandemic. Many countries are participating online.

Mr Grossi noted that the pandemic had forced a two-month lockdown during which virtually all Agency staff had worked from home.  

“The 12 months since the last regular session of the General Conference have been unprecedented in the history of the Agency,” he added.

Nevertheless, the Agency mounted its largest-ever operation to help countries respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, shipping 1,300 consignments of equipment for virus detection and diagnosis and other supplies to 123 countries. Supporting countries in fighting the coronavirus would remain the IAEA’s top priority until the pandemic had been defeated, Mr Grossi said.

“COVID-19 will certainly not be the last pandemic which threatens the world,” he said. “I have therefore proposed a new IAEA Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action project, known as ZODIAC, to establish a global network of national diagnostic laboratories for the monitoring, surveillance, early detection and control of zoonotic diseases, using nuclear or nuclear-derived techniques.”

He urged Member States to support the ZODIAC project, under which countries will have access to equipment, technology packages, expertise, guidance and training. Decision-makers will receive up-to-date, user-friendly information that will enable them to act quickly in the event of a new disease outbreak. The IAEA will work closely with partners such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations.

Safeguards implementation

Mr Grossi highlighted a new IAEA initiative to help further increase the effectiveness of nuclear safeguards by strengthening support to national and regional authorities and what are known as State systems of accounting for and control of nuclear materials. He noted that the performance of these bodies had a direct impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of safeguards implementation.

The new initiative, known as COMPASS, will offer additional, tailored assistance to Member States. (You can find out more about the initiative by following our side event on Tuesday at 14:00, Vienna time. Save this link).

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 continue, Mr Grossi said.

He expressed serious concern about the continued nuclear programme of North Korea, which the IAEA has monitored using open source information, including satellite imagery, since its inspectors were required to leave the country in 2009. “The continuation of the country’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” he said.

He called upon North Korea to comply fully with its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions and to cooperate promptly with the Agency. IAEA inspectors were ready to resume their work in the country when this becomes possible, he said.

Modernization of laboratories

Mr Grossi updated General Conference delegates on the modernisation of the IAEA nuclear applications laboratories at Seibersdorf, near Vienna, which he described as “one of the most exciting and ambitious projects ever undertaken by the Agency”.

Four of the eight laboratories now occupy brand new facilities. A proposed final phase will comprise the construction of a new building to house the remaining three laboratories, refurbishment of the existing Dosimetry Laboratory and the replacement of the Agency’s ageing greenhouses.

Technical cooperation

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

Nuclear energy

Noting that 442 nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries today supply over 10% of the world’s electricity and around a third of all low-carbon electricity, Mr Grossi reiterated his message that nuclear power is part of the solution to the climate crisis.

“I am keen to ensure that the Agency’s voice is heard on the great benefits of nuclear power,” he said.

Fifty-three reactors are under construction in 19 countries. Mr Grossi said that the latest IAEA annual projections show nuclear power will continue to play a key role in the world’s low-carbon energy mix. (Read our article on the projections here.)

He encouraged delegates to take part in the 2020 IAEA Scientific Forum, from 22 to 23 September, entitled Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition. (The Scientific Forum will be livestreamed on iaea.org, starting at 10:00 Vienna time on Tuesday.)

Nuclear safety and security

The great benefits of nuclear technologies are sustainable only if they are used safely and securely, Mr Grossi said.

He highlighted Member States’ extensive use of the Agency’s expert peer review and advisory services to help them continuously enhance nuclear safety and security, and the IAEA’s central role in international cooperation to ensure that nuclear and other radioactive material is properly protected.

“Funding for the IAEA’s nuclear security activities needs to be put on a more sustainable footing,” he said. “Nuclear security is much too important to be dependent on extra-budgetary contributions, as is the case today.” Extra-budgetary contributions are voluntary payments made by some Member States that are separate to the regular budget of the Agency, paid for by all Member States.

Bridging the gender gap

Mr Grossi said steady progress had been made towards achieving the goal of gender parity among senior IAEA staff by 2025, which he set on taking office in December 2019.

“I attach great importance to increasing the proportion of women who work for the Agency,” he added. “We adopted Special Measures for the Achievement of Gender Parity in May and can already report a significant increase in the proportion of women appointed to senior positions.”

To help increase the number of women working in the nuclear field, the IAEA has launched the IAEA Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship Programme. Women studying for master’s degrees in nuclear science and technology, safety, security or non-proliferation are invited to apply for the programme to receive a scholarship for up to two years towards their studies. Applications are open until 11 October. “Please make talented young women in your country aware of this great opportunity,” Mr Grossi said.

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