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Challenges and Opportunities in the Work of the IAEA

Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be in Singapore and to have the opportunity to speak to you today.

I would like to discuss some of the challenges, as well as the opportunities, which we at the IAEA face in our work. I will focus on three main areas: nuclear power, nuclear sciences and applications, and nuclear non-proliferation.

The IAEA is often referred to in the media as the world´s "nuclear watchdog." This is a reference to our work in nuclear non-proliferation. As many of you may know, this does not do justice to the full range of our activities. Since its establishment in 1957, the Agency has pursued two fundamental goals: preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and helping to make nuclear technologies available for peaceful applications, especially to developing countries through the IAEA technical cooperation programme.

Nuclear power is of increasing importance to our Member States. It is enjoying growing acceptance throughout the world as a stable and clean source of energy that can help to mitigate the impact of climate change. More than 60 countries are considering introducing nuclear power to generate electricity. We expect between 10 and 25 new countries to bring their first nuclear power plants online by 2030. Most of the new nuclear power plants which are being planned or are already under construction are here in Asia. I understand that there is lively discussion in your country on whether Singapore should take this route.

For some years now, the IAEA has been increasingly focussing on the needs of newcomers to nuclear power. Our goal is to assist them at every stage of the process. We provide them with impartial and objective advice on how to put the appropriate legal and regulatory framework in place and how to ensure the highest standards of safety, security and safeguards. We can also advise on the siting of nuclear reactors, as well as on their construction, commissioning, start-up and operation. The end-result, we hope, is that countries will be able to introduce nuclear power knowledgeably, profitably, safely and securely. But I would like to stress that it is the sovereign decision of each individual country whether or not to add nuclear power to its energy mix. The Agency is there to serve Member States and does not try to influence their decisions in any way.

It is, of course, important that countries with new and expanding nuclear power programmes should ensure the highest standards of safety and security. The Agency is the custodian of the main international safety and security instruments and member states are strongly encouraged to participate actively in the global nuclear safety and security frameworks. We can, if requested, put together international expert teams to assess everything from the operational safety of nuclear power plants to the effectiveness of nuclear regulatory systems. A growing number of countries are happy to invite such missions and to provide experts to engage in "peer reviews" of each other’s nuclear power programmes.

In fact, nuclear safety has improved considerably since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. But the risk of accidents can never be eliminated completely and we must always be vigilant. A major safety failure at a nuclear facility anywhere in the world could represent a significant setback to the expansion in nuclear power which we are now witnessing. The IAEA´s international expert missions to assess and improve safety are therefore especially valuable. The practitioners keep each other on their toes, the necessary lessons are learned and shared and everyone benefits.

Helping to keep nuclear and radioactive materials secure is another growing area of our work. Earlier this year, I had the honour of attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, chaired by President Obama. It was encouraging to see leaders from 47 countries giving personal attention to issues such as preventing nuclear and radioactive material from falling into the hands of terrorists and guarding nuclear facilities against sabotage.

Responsibility for nuclear security rests with each state, but the IAEA can assist in many ways. For example, we helped to protect against possible nuclear attacks at the World Cup in South Africa this year, as we did at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. We help countries to improve security at nuclear facilities and train border guards in how to detect smuggled nuclear material.

A lesser known area of the IAEA´s activities is making advanced nuclear science and technology available to help Member States meet the basic needs of their peoples.

This includes assistance in areas such as human health, agriculture and the management of water resources. Cancer therapy is a good example. For my first year as Director General, I chose to highlight the fight against cancer in developing countries. It is not widely known that cancer has reached epidemic proportions in developing countries, where it kills 665 people every hour - nearly three times as many as in developed countries. Because of the absence of early diagnosis, most cases are detected too late for life-saving treatment. In many low-income countries, there is not a single radiation therapy machine. As a result, around 70 percent of global deaths from cancer occur in developing countries.

Through our Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy, launched in 2004, the IAEA - working with partners such as the World Health Organization - has been playing an important role in improving cancer control in developing countries. The IAEA´s cancer expertise lies in radiotherapy and nuclear medicine. Since 1980, we have delivered over $220 million worth of cancer-related assistance to developing countries, providing equipment and training. We will host a special Scientific Forum in Vienna next month which will focus on fighting cancer in the developing countries.

Nuclear non-proliferation is, of course, the area of the IAEA´s work which attracts most attention. Our job is to verify that States are fully complying with their non-proliferation obligations and that nuclear material has not been diverted from peaceful nuclear activities.

The world faces increasing risks of nuclear proliferation. It is therefore important that the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and especially the IAEA safeguards system, should be strengthened. This means more and more countries bringing into force so-called additional protocols to their comprehensive safeguards agreements with the Agency, which give our inspectors wider authority to do their job. It also means the Agency continuing to upgrade its technology to the most advanced levels.

Key safeguards issues which have been occupying the Agency for some years now include the nuclear programmes of Iran and of North Korea. In the case of Iran, the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material. But Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities. In order to resolve international concerns about the nature of Iran´s nuclear programme, it is necessary for Iran to make concrete steps towards the full implementation of its comprehensive safeguards agreement and other relevant obligations.

North Korea´s nuclear programme remains a matter of serious concern to the international community. The Agency has had no inspectors in the DPRK since they were ordered to leave in April last year. The recent increase in tension on the Korean Peninsula reminds us that the security situation in this region remains extremely sensitive and underscores the need to address the nuclear issue as early as possible. I urge the DPRK to fully implement all relevant nuclear non-proliferation obligations. Diplomatic dialogue in a framework such as the Six Party Talks should be resumed at an appropriate time, with the ultimate aim of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The IAEA is ready to contribute to future verification arrangements if called upon to do so.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you can imagine, the likely increase in the number of countries with nuclear power programmes will mean a greatly increased workload for the IAEA in the coming decades. This represents a great challenge for the Agency and for me as Director General. But I am confident that, with our dedicated and professional staff from all over the world, and with the steadfast support of Member States such as Singapore, we are more than equal to this challenge. I foresee a bright future for nuclear science and technology and for the IAEA.

Thank you.


Last update: 9 March 2017