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An exchange of views with the European Parliament: The IAEA and the EU: Tapping Nuclear to Advance Development, Health and Environmental Sustainability

Brussels, Belgium
Rafael Mariano Grossi

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

(As prepared for delivery)

Mesdames et messieurs les membres du Parlement européen,

Je tiens à remercier la Présidente Nathalie Loiseau et les Présidents David McAllister et Cristian-Silviu Buşoi de m’avoir invité à cet échange de vues.

Aujourd’hui, nous assistons à deux premières. On m’a dit que c’était la première fois que ces trois commissions du Parlement européen se réunissaient et je pense que c’est la première fois qu’un Directeur général de l’Agence internationale de l’énergie atomique prend la parole dans cette institution prestigieuse. Je vous remercie de ce privilège et j’espère entamer ainsi une collaboration plus étroite entre nos deux institutions. Nous avons de nombreux objectifs communs et beaucoup à faire.

Depuis plus de 60 ans, l’organisation dont on m’a confié la direction joue un rôle décisif pour ce qui est de maintenir la paix mondiale et de veiller à ce que toutes les nations tirent parti de l’incroyable puissance salvatrice de l’atome.

Je sais qu’aujourd’hui je suis en bonne compagnie quand je dis que je crois fermement au pouvoir de la diplomatie. On ne compte plus les fois où elle a permis de surmonter des problèmes à première vue inextricables, notamment en ce qui concerne le programme nucléaire iranien.

En tant qu’inspecteur mondial du nucléaire, je fais tout ce que je peux pour permettre à la diplomatie de fonctionner. Au cours des dernières semaines, nous sommes parvenus à éviter la menace d’une crise immédiate en matière de vérification, qui aurait pu anéantir les chances de raviver le Plan d’action global commun.

Fin février, je me suis rendu à Téhéran, juste quelques jours avant qu’une nouvelle loi iranienne ne suspende l’application du protocole additionnel et d’autres mesures de transparence. Avec M. Zarif, Ministre des affaires étrangères, et M. Salehi, Vice-Président et responsable de l’Organisation iranienne de l’énergie atomique, nous avons conclu une entente technique temporaire qui permettra à l’AIEA de poursuivre les activités de vérification nécessaires au cours des trois prochains mois.

J’espère que ce répit permettra à l’Iran et aux six autres pays du Plan d’action global commun de trouver des moyens d’avancer.

De mon point de vue, le plus important est que nos inspecteurs puissent poursuivre sans entrave leur travail relatif aux garanties. Il en va de la paix et de la sécurité internationales.

Beyond Iran, the DPRK remains a most serious concern and at the IAEA we are intensifying our readiness for the day we will be able to return to the country. The DPRK is a cautionary example of what can happen when our inspectors are unable to monitor a country’s use of nuclear technology.

Nevertheless, if you pan out across six decades, the IAEA has done an exceptional job in helping to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It has allowed the world to avoid the future so feared by the NPT’s signatories.

And when new challenges have arisen, we have adapted. While our founders assumed the gravest danger lay in countries across the globe acquiring nuclear weapons, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought home the danger of non-state actors.

Distinguished Members of the European Parliament,

One of my goals in addressing you today is for the IAEA to become your indispensable partner to achieving the EU’s Agenda for a Renewed Multilateralism and also fulfilling its Agenda 2030. I believe that your noble objectives of: “strengthening global recovery and tackling inequalities”; of “winning the race against climate change and restoring our relationship with nature”; and of “building partnerships and alliances” will be easier to achieve when you work with, and support, the IAEA.

I fully agree with the EU’s assertion that, “the challenges of the 21st Century call for more, not less, multilateralism and rules-based international cooperation.”

At the IAEA, we see this in almost everything we do. We see it in the EU’s steadfast partnerships and generous support of our work on safeguards, safety and security. We see it in your contribution to the IAEA’s Low Enriched Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan.

We saw it in the response of the international community after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant 10 years ago this month. The IAEA not only helped Japan, but it was also at the centre of the international efforts to enhance the safety of existing and future reactors worldwide. Together, we learned lessons, acquired and shared data, and strengthened our safety-first culture. Today, nuclear is safer than ever and we have a robust, normative and adaptive global safety framework with the IAEA at its core. This includes, for example, the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident. It also includes many invaluable safety standards and guides that operators rely on every day.

Beyond safeguards, safety and security, the IAEA has grown to become an important partner to those Member States who rely on us to help them meet their Sustainable Development Goals.

And here, distinguished Members I would like to say that we could do so much more together. Let me explain why.

The Agency’s most visible role may be that of the world’s nuclear watchdog, but for many countries it is our work spreading the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology that matters most.

We help nations from Africa, Asia and Latin America: to harness the power of nuclear science to boost crop yields; to learn isotopic techniques that reduce the need for irrigation and fertilizers; to sterilize pests and cut the use of harmful pesticides; and to break down the plastic polluting our oceans. We help them irradiate food to boost its longevity for export; to analyse water supplies to rebuild war-torn cities like Kabul, and to benefit from the huge advances of nuclear medicine in detecting and curing cancers.

We work to battle many different types of cancers. Let me highlight just one. Cervical cancer is largely treatable, yet it still kills more than 300,000 women every year. Around 90 percent of them live in low- and middle-income countries. These data illuminate the wide inequality caused by the uneven availability of nuclear medicine. This is where the IAEA plays an indispensable role. By sharing technology and knowledge we work tirelessly to close this gap.

You may be surprised to learn that we are also on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19. Last year, we launched the biggest emergency response operation in our history. So far, we have supplied 128 countries and territories with RT-PCR testing kits, thereby reaching 28 million people.

Over decades we have built a large network of experts and laboratories, gaining valuable experience in using nuclear technology and techniques to detect and thwart all kinds of zoonotic diseases. We are now consolidating that knowledge and reach in a project we call ZODIAC. By using nuclear-derived technologies to detect viruses in animals and antibodies in humans, we will build up the defences of countries at the forefront of these outbreaks. It will be nuclear’s contribution to reducing the chance that the world falls victim again to a devastating pandemic like COVID-19.

We see many EU Member States increasing their contributions to our activities in the area of nuclear applications. I hope EU institutions will mirror their Members’ funding priorities to follow suit, particularly given the importance of Agenda 2030. Zodiac would be a judicious way for the EU’s institutions to make their mark.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The biggest positive long-term impact nuclear can make is in providing a safe, stable and sustainable supply of low carbon energy.

Nuclear power has fuelled the development of major world economies for generations. It has done so without contributing to the more than 8 million deaths fossil fuel pollution causes annually, according to 2018 data.1

It is every country’s sovereign right and responsibility to choose its own energy mix. Half of the EU’s Members States have chosen to include nuclear and their 106 reactors provide 47% of Europe’s low carbon electricity. Around the world, 443 nuclear reactors generate one third of today’s low carbon electricity.

The IAEA works closely with all: Those who produce nuclear power and those who don’t. Every one of our Member States has an interest in our indispensable work on safety, security and decommissioning.

Whatever one’s position, nuclear has proven without a doubt that it can, has and does play a role in mitigating climate change and achieving energy security.

Reducing at scale our impact on the climate is becoming ever more pressing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate points out that nuclear power generation would need to increase by 59-501% if we are to meet our 1.5-degree target.

The European Green Deal is rightly ambitious, seeking to cut at least 55% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The European Parliament’s resolution ahead of COP25 could not have been clearer about the EU’s resolve to play a leading role in meeting that global challenge already affecting us. The resolution states that the European Parliament believes nuclear energy “can play a role in meeting climate objectives because it does not emit greenhouse gases, and can also ensure a significant share of electricity production in Europe”.

The EU’s Delegated Acts under the Taxonomy for Sustainable Financing are an important part of that plan. For it to achieve its full potential and fulfil the vision of the European Parliament, I hope you will agree it needs to consider the merits of all decarbonizing energy sources, especially the ones with significant scale, like nuclear. Not doing so would be limiting options at a time when no one can afford to do so.

Around the world nuclear is expanding, especially in fast-growing economies such as China and India. 50 new nuclear reactors are in construction and by 2035 a dozen newcomers from Europe, Africa and Asia plan to join the group of countries producing nuclear power.

Even countries with oil reserves and plenty of sun are adding nuclear to their energy mix. Last year, the Barakah nuclear power plant started supplying electricity to the people of the UAE. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation built the reactor in less than a decade with a level of international cooperation that saw American regulatory advisors work side-by-side with South Korean engineers.

And like all technology, nuclear is making advances. New small modular reactors (SMR) can halve the construction time and slash costs by moving much of the build off-site.

Russia, China, Argentina and the US are just some of the countries designing and soon deploying these new, cheaper and nimbler nuclear technologies. SMRs hold the promise of flexibly integrating with other low carbon sources. This includes those used in the production of clean hydrogen and the heat needed to decarbonize industry. Innovative designs will even be able to run on the spent fuel we already possess.

Unlike with coal, oil and gas, where waste is unregulated, poisons the air we breathe and causes climate change, nuclear waste does not and will not impact current and future generations. That is because we have found a permanent solution.

In November, I travelled to Onkalo in Finland and descended 450 meters into the first soon-to-be licensed deep disposal site for high level nuclear waste. Onkalo allows us to dispose of nuclear waste safely, for hundreds of thousands of years. It sweeps aside one of the biggest hurdles to confidently deploying nuclear energy for the benefit of future generations. Onkalo is a game-changer and Sweden is soon to follow. The technology option is there. It is no longer a theory or plan. It is a reality. We have the tangible answer to the decades-old question of how we ensure nuclear waste ‘does no harm’. Let us not miss its significance.

Here too, the IAEA plays a role, whether supporting those countries that decide to shut down their reactors or those that decide to build new ones.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The EU and the IAEA are already strong partners in safeguarding international peace and security through non-proliferation. We work together to set conditions so that those who use nuclear power do so safely and with the utmost level of security.

Keeping nuclear from doing us harm is a noble cause in itself. But is it also a means to a very important end. It allows the world to harness nuclear science and technology to answer some of the most urgent challenges we face: climate change, plastic pollution, zoonotic diseases, cancer and the scarcity of water and food.

It is in this work that the EU and the IAEA could do so much more together. We are natural partners in our efforts to promote the wellbeing of everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us. Doing so makes us all better off.

I invite you, this Parliament of Europe, to extend the European support and generosity to this cause that is truly universal.

With Europe and the IAEA as partners, we are certain to succeed.

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