Profile: Hans Blix: 90 years of excellence

28 June 2018

Celebrating his birthday today, Hans Blix can look back on a professional life spanning the entire history of nuclear energy as a source of electricity. Few have done, or continue to do, as much for its peaceful development as this dedicated statesman and his humble commitment to truth.

(Image: Daniel Heaf)

Blix is best known for his highest profile role as the man charged with determining the status of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq at the start of the 2000s, appointed as head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

He was uniquely qualified after not only 16 years as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and 16 years as part of Sweden's delegation to the Disarmament Conference in Geneva but also possessing the diplomatic skills of a consummate civil servant. Hans Blix is humble and warm, yet strict and precise, and unafraid to courteously explain unwelcome facts to powerful people.

His unique personality shone as one of the first international visitors to the Chernobyl accident scene, trusted by the Soviet authorities to choose his own words, and trusted too by a very fearful public. As an administrator he convened major conferences on the accident and international conventions on how nations should notify and assist each other during nuclear accidents. 

Architect of nuclear development

From 1981 to 1997 he grew the IAEA alongside the burgeoning nuclear energy industry, which tripled in electricity generation capacity globally. This was also a tough time politically, spanning the latter stages of the Cold War, during which he brought in the Additional Protocol to the safeguards regime and played a role in reversing an arms race. The previous safeguards system had been "too mild, too weak", he later said, adding that "cosmetic inspections were worse than no inspections at all". He pursued the IAEA's mission of 'Atoms for Peace' with emphasis also on the development of nuclear power and the expansion of its benefits across the world.

It was a "stroke of genius" that Blix had been chosen to lead the IAEA, said Uranium Institute chairman Tokio Kanoh when presenting him the organisation's Gold Medal for outstanding contributions that have facilitated the deployment of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in 1997. "Under his leadership the IAEA has been not merely an indispensable tool of arms control," said Kanoh, "it has also made a fundamental contribution to the transformation of the nuclear business into a competitive purveyor of safe, environmentally sound energy for the benefit of all mankind." When the Uranium Institute was renewed with a larger mandate as World Nuclear Association in 2001 Blix was elected by its members as Honorary Chairman - a service at the heart of industry he keenly maintains.

At the first World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium in September 2001 Blix pledged, "I assure you I am glad to assist in any modest way I can to further the mission of the organisation. While this mission is certainly to serve the collectively of its members, it is also one that, in my view, serves the international community. The mission is a greater use of nuclear energy and nuclear technology for exclusively peaceful purposes, specifically sustainable global development."

An industry's mentor

Human development is a passion for Blix, who asked to join Women in Nuclear (WiN) as soon as he heard of it. "His recognition was a great boost for the organisation in the early days," said WiN co-founder and director general of the World Nuclear Association, Agneta Rising. It now counts 35,000 members in over 100 countries. For young leaders in the industry he has lent his support and expertise to the World Nuclear University (WNU) as its chancellor since its founding in 2003. Each year the WNU produces a cadre of Summer Institute fellows enriched by input from experts from every part of the industry and its international system of governance. Blix usually addresses the groups, both in his own expert capacity and to congratulate them on their graduation at the end of the life-changing six weeks. He has sometimes told the story of his office and apartment being bugged while investigating Iraq: "I wish they had at least listened a bit more carefully to what I said. It is the height of humiliation to be bugged and ignored." That's not a problem among Summer Institute fellows. Blix's even-handed approach and warm human mode of communication develops such immense respect that during his conversations with fellows you could hear a pin drop.

Parties listening keenly to Hans Blix today include the UAE's forthcoming nuclear programme, for which he chairs an international council of advisors. He also advises the project to install the New Safe Confinement over the remains of Chernobyl 4. "Moving together the two halves of the huge arch of this gigantic shelter is like closing a wound - a nuclear wound that belongs to all of us," he said.

In a 2015 interview with 52-Insights, Blix said, "I am passionately interested in nuclear energy and its connection with the environment. I'm convinced that nuclear power has a potentially vast role, though we have not yet succeeded in allaying people's fear of radiation. So, energy and the environment are focal points and I've worked at improving peaceful relations and developing international law for that purpose."

Moving into his 90th year, Hans Blix has already had two attempts at retirement and now says he has given up on the idea. We can be glad, because his example of calm adherence to rules-based systems of governance, balanced with critical thinking and personal integrity remains as important as ever.

Jeremy Gordon, World Nuclear Association