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Director General's Statement to the 78th Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly

Vienna, Austria

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), presents the annual report of the IAEA to the UN General Assembly. (Photo: L. Felipe/UN)

(As prepared for delivery)

Mr President,

It’s an honour to address the 78th Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly, to present the report of the IAEA for 2022 and to update you on the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Almost exactly 70 years ago, US President Dwight D Eisenhower stood at this very spot and gave his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech. That speech set the direction of how we use the atom for good rather than evil and laid the seedling idea that would grow into the IAEA.

Today, the proposal of Atoms for Peace is more relevant than ever and the IAEA is the vehicle by which we are making it a reality. Every day on every continent, the IAEA supports nations in overcoming challenges like disease, poverty, hunger, pollution and climate change by seizing opportunities to improve healthcare, agriculture, and energy systems through the power of nuclear science and technology.  

The IAEA is best known as the world’s nuclear weapons watchdog, and we take that role very seriously. But it’s worthwhile to remember that most of our Member States join the IAEA because they want to improve the lives and livelihoods of their people through the peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.

Those uses are so versatile and varied that they directly assist countries towards achieving more than half the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and indirectly towards all of them.

Mr President,

Let me begin by addressing the single challenge that cuts across all the SDGs and affects every person on this planet: climate change. I want to start here because we find ourselves at a critical juncture in the history of energy and our climate. Every one of us has a responsibility to think long-term and act decisively, based on fact and science.

It is clear that nuclear energy must be part of the equation if we are to meet our climate goals and build a sustainable future in which it is possible for humanity to thrive.  

As the latest UN stock-take attests, we are not on track. Even after trillions of dollars spent on the green transition over the past 20 years, hydrocarbons still supply more than 80% of the world’s energy.  In those decades, nuclear power’s share of global electricity production decreased by about half. Today, solar and wind technologies contribute to 5% of global energy supply. If that is to increase sustainably, these renewables will need a firm low-carbon energy base. It is possible to decarbonize a large industrial grid. A number of countries have shown us this. They have also shown us that nuclear power plays a decisive role as the firm low-carbon energy base on which their success is built.

Today, more than 400 nuclear power reactors operating in more than 30 countries supply over 10% of the world’s electricity, and more than a quarter of all low-carbon electricity. Without nuclear power, global CO2 emissions would be considerably higher.

More than 50 reactors are currently under construction. Many countries already operating nuclear power programmes are extending them.

But what about those countries where electricity consumption will rise fastest over the coming decades? In Africa, electricity capacity is set to grow fivefold by 2050 and in Latin America it is forecast to double. They are looking at nuclear too.

Of the 30 or so countries that are currently either considering or embarking on the introduction of nuclear power, more than half are in the developing world. And most of these are in Africa.

The IAEA has intensified its work in these countries, offering the Milestone Approach to establishing a nuclear programme, publishing safety standards and security guidance, and mapping out the path to carbon neutrality through our Atoms4NetZero initiative, which we launched in 2022. We are also making sure that nuclear has a seat at the table at crucial discussions, including the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Nuclear capacity will need to more than double so that climate goals can be met. It will also need to become more innovative. In 2022, the IAEA launched the Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative. It brings together all stakeholders in an effort to facilitate the timely and safe deployment of advanced reactors, including Small Modular Reactors. These reactors can be built in factories far away from their final destination and their modularity allows for gradual investments as and when more capacity is needed. This makes nuclear energy particularly relevant, and potentially more easily affordable, to communities looking to power smaller and growing electricity grids. The potential of SMRs as part of the energy mix of developing countries is clear and many of them have turned to the IAEA for guidance and support.

The growing interest in nuclear energy across the world is reflected in the IAEA’s projections. In its new outlook for global nuclear capacity for electricity generation, the Agency increased its high case projection to 873 gigawatts in 2050.

To achieve such growth will require a better investment playing field, one that takes into consideration the full benefits of nuclear. To that end, the IAEA facilitates the understanding of nuclear financing and the macroeconomic impacts of nuclear investments.

Regardless of which energy mix best serves a nation individually, all nations benefit when investments in nuclear energy are made. I urge the decision makers of our world, whether as stakeholders in development banks or other mechanisms funding the green transition, to recognize nuclear energy and its infrastructure for what they are: proven, safe, large-scale and long-term sources of low-carbon energy.    

Unlike fossil fuels whose waste kills 8 million people a year, nuclear energy accounts for and carefully stores all its waste. Deep underground repositories are offering game-changing long-term solutions. In 2022, the Agency continued to work with its Member States across the fuel cycle, including in the areas of waste management and decommissioning; holding conferences, publishing status reports, and conducting peer-review missions.

Nuclear energy is not only there to decarbonise electricity grids. It will be key to decarbonizing other sectors too because it is able to produce sustainable heat for homes and industry and to produce large amounts of hydrogen. It is also able to provide drinking water via desalination.

Nuclear energy is a force for good and nuclear safety and security are paramount. That is why my teams of safety and security experts and I crossed the front lines of the war in Ukraine to establish an ongoing expert presence at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant. We have worked tirelessly to try to prevent a nuclear accident from bringing even more suffering to those who are already bearing so much. In nuclear, safety and security come first.

In 2022, the Agency conducted nine vital in-person missions to Ukraine, three of which I led, and facilitated the delivery of crucial safety and security equipment.

These efforts culminated in the agreement that would lead to a continuous IAEA presence at all Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, ensuring ongoing support and assistance.

In response to the armed conflict, I formulated and presented to the UN Security Council the Five Basic Principles of nuclear safety and security in an armed conflict. The bottom line is that nuclear power plants should not become part of the theatre of war. They should neither be attacked, nor militarized.

The IAEA’s seven indispensable pillars of nuclear safety and security, meanwhile, make absolutely clear the crucial areas of nuclear safety and security, so no one misunderstands them, whether they are combatants on the ground in Ukraine, or readers of the IAEA’s frequent updates on the situation at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, especially at the Zaphorizhzya Nuclear Power Plant.

In 2022, shortly after the start of the conflict, we developed a detailed technical plan to provide comprehensive assistance, as necessary, across four crucial areas: in-person technical assistance, equipment delivery, remote assistance, and rapid deployment assistance.

This year, our ongoing presence in Ukraine continues, as do our updates.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The IAEA has been proactive in reviewing the safety-related aspects of the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) water stored at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station following the accident of 2011. In 2022, the ALPS task force laid the groundwork for the disposal of this treated water to be conducted transparently and in line with international safety standards.

The IAEA will be there for the duration of the discharge, monitoring and assessing it, including by taking independent samples, to ensure full transparency and scientific objectivity.

Around the world, the Agency’s Safety Standards are considered international reference points for the protection of people and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation. Meanwhile our nuclear security guidance plays an equivalent role in helping the international community prevent nuclear material from falling into terrorists’ hands.

Mr President,

Our safeguards teams are inspecting ever-greater quantities of nuclear material and increasing numbers of facilities, assuring the international community of their peaceful uses while remaining firm, objective and diligent, always. In 2022, there were more than 230,000 significant quantities of nuclear material under safeguards and the IAEA conducted more than 14 000 days of in-field verification activities.

The Agency’s verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA have been seriously affected by Iran’s decision in February 2021 to stop the implementation of those commitments, including the Additional Protocol. This was further exacerbated in June 2022 by Iran’s decision to remove all the Agency’s equipment previously installed in Iran for surveillance and monitoring in relation to JCPOA.

With regard to its NPT Safeguards Agreement, Iran still needed to resolve some of the Agency’s questions concerning traces of man-made uranium identified at three undeclared locations in that country. Unless and until Iran clarifies these issues, the Agency will not be able to provide assurances about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. The IAEA remains ready to work with Iran in a spirit of cooperation and without delay to resolve these matters.

The number of states with safeguards agreements in force now stands at 190, and 141 of these states have brought additional protocols in force. I call upon the remaining four states parties to the NPT without comprehensive safeguards agreements to bring such agreements into force without delay. I also encourage states that have not yet concluded additional protocols to do so as soon as possible. I also reiterate my call for states with small quantities protocols (SQP) based on the old standard text to amend or rescind them. The old standard SQP is simply not adequate for our current safeguards system.

The IAEA has continued to monitor the nuclear programme of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from outside its borders. The continuation of DPRK’s nuclear programme is in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.  

Mr President,

Nuclear science and technology can do much more than produce low-carbon energy. As I begin my second term as Director General, I am more determined than ever to scale the positive impact we can make. The initiatives I have launched over the past four years are the vehicles that will help us achieve that goal.

In February 2022, I launched Rays of Hope at the sidelines of the African Union Summit, supported by President of Senegal Macky Sall, who was then also the chairperson of the African Union, and the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Starting with seven African nations, Rays of Hope is increasing the access to affordable, equitable, effective and sustainable radiation medicine services within a comprehensive cancer control system.

Last year, I told you about the launch of two other important initiatives: Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action, or ZODIAC, to help countries better prepare for zoonotic disease outbreaks, and NUTEC Plastics, to help reduce the amount of plastic pollution, especially in our ocean. I am delighted to report that these two initiatives have been fully embraced and are making important contributions.  

By the end of 2022, the vast majority of our Member States had designated national coordinators and laboratories for ZODIAC.  Training courses reached participants in 95 countries while crucial equipment arrived at national laboratories.

Meanwhile, NUTEC Plastics is supporting countries considering establishing a pilot plant for plastic waste recycling and those seeking to monitor marine microplastics through isotopic tracing.

Mr President,

The health and climate crises we face have been compounded by a food crisis. More than 780 million people went hungry in 2022, an increase of almost 20 percent from 2019. Overall, food and agriculture were again the main areas of interest of Member States participating in our technical cooperation programme.

Mutation breeding using irradiation allows scientists to develop hardier new crop variants better able to withstand harsh climates and needing less water and pesticide. In 2022, the IAEA even sent seeds to the international space station. Our scientists back here on earth are studying them to learn potentially valuable lessons about the seeds’ response to the natural radiation and tough conditions of space.

Isotope hydrology, meanwhile, helps farmers improve the management of their soil. From Latin America to the Sahel, the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), helps Member States boost their capacity to do this important work. Meanwhile, we have assisted communities in using the Sterile Insect Technique to reduce the populations of destructive pests, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly.

All these approaches help support food security. Our work in 2022 and before has laid the foundation for Atoms4Food, the global initiative the IAEA and FAO have just launched.    

In all we do, it is vital that everyone is able to fully benefit and fully contribute.

The share of women among our professional staff has reached more than 43%, and their representation is even greater in senior management positions. I am confident our policies and actions have put us squarely on the path to achieving our goal of gender parity by 2025.

But it is not enough simply to improve the gender balance at the IAEA when the entire nuclear field is still lagging. The IAEA’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship programme has grown each year since it was launched in 2020. By the end of 2022, 360 students had been awarded a scholarship to study a nuclear subject at the Master’s degree level. That year, we launched the Lise Meitner Programme as a natural follow on to the fellowship. It offers professional development opportunities to women in the early and middle part of their careers in the nuclear field. I urge those who can, to support these important initiatives aimed at improving the gender balance of this crucial sector.

Mr President,

A world divided by geopolitical tensions must seize with even more energy every opportunity to address shared challenges together. That is what the IAEA makes possible, whether in a casava plantation, a marine laboratory, a cancer centre, or a nuclear power plant in a war zone.

You have my promise that the IAEA will continue to lean into the challenges where it can make a difference. In partnership with you, we will build a better world where no one is left behind.

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