IAEA is there to help with every global challenge, says Grossi

21 September 2020

The fight against the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the important role the International Atomic Energy Agency plays in the major crises the world faces, its director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said today in his opening address to the 64th regular session of the IAEA General Conference. These remarks were in addition to his formal statement published by the agency while he was speaking to the conference's participants, both those present at the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna and those watching via livestreaming of the event.

IAEA director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi (Image: IAEA)

The IAEA, which has 172 Member States, assisted 147 countries and territories last year through its technical cooperation programme, 35 of which were the least developed countries. The main focus of its work was on health and nutrition, nuclear safety and security, and food and agriculture.

"This year has been extraordinarily difficult and it still is, and we have so many challenges in front of us, but every challenge redoubles our determination to do well and to do what is expected from us in the best possible manner," Grossi said, adding, "As the masks on your faces prove, we are not there yet."

All of its multifaceted work shows that the IAEA is a "dynamic agency" in its commitment to making the "noble idea" of its motto, Atoms for Peace and Development, a reality, he said.

"This is the IAEA of 2020. This is the IAEA of the future. An IAEA which is present at every important societal global challenge where its mandate allows it to be."


In spite of national lockdowns and restrictions on international travel, 1300 consignments of IAEA equipment for virus detection and diagnosis and other supplies have been delivered, or are in transit, to 123 countries. Equipment it has delivered includes real time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) machines. RT-PCR is one of the most accurate laboratory methods for detecting, tracking and studying COVID-19.

In June, further to the IAEA's COVID-19 response, the IAEA launched an initiative to help countries prevent pandemics caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi or viruses that originate in animals and can be transmitted to humans.

"COVID-19 will certainly not be the last pandemic which threatens the world," Grossi 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."


The Agency has also had to overcome the logistical challenges presented by the pandemic in its work to ensure the implementation of safeguards.

"We were not expecting to have to inspect hundreds of nuclear facilities in a world that was closed down, where planes could not land and we could not take off to get there, to make sure that nuclear material is not diverted to forbidden uses. But we did it. It was not obvious that we would be able to continue our work and to help our Member States at a time of difficulty, but we did it," Grossi said.

The Agency has continued to carry out all of its "most time-critical in-field verification work", while rescheduling some less urgent activities, such as equipment installation and maintenance. For the first time, it chartered aircraft to enable its inspectors to reach their destinations, he said.

The number of States with safeguards agreements in force stands at 184, 136 of whom have brought Additional Protocols into force.

"The performance of State or regional authorities (SRA) and State systems of accounting for and control of nuclear materials (SSAC) has a direct impact upon the effectiveness and efficiency of safeguards implementation," Grossi said in his written statement. "I have therefore launched a new initiative, known as COMPASS, to help States further strengthen the effectiveness of their SRA and SSAC. Building on existing capacity development programmes, this initiative will offer additional, tailored assistance to Member States."

Climate change

Grossi noted that one of his first foreign trips as IAEA director general was to the COP25 UN climate talks in Madrid last December.

"I wanted to send a very clear 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. "We have said that the IAEA would not stand by as a spectator to the enormous crisis that the world is facing in terms of global warming and climate change."

Looking ahead to COP26 in the UK next year, Grossi said: "We are a scientific and technical organisation and we know that it will be extremely difficult to get to a decarbonised economy without the contribution of nuclear energy, so we are going to be there, helping those who are consolidated users of nuclear energy so that they can continue doing this in a secure and in a non-proliferation manner. And, more importantly, we will be there guiding the steps of those who are acceding to nuclear power."


Member States also make extensive use of expert peer review and advisory services provided by the Agency to help them continuously enhance nuclear safety and security. IAEA Safety Standards are used voluntarily by almost all countries to protect people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

The IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Security - known as ICONS 2020 - was held at the ministerial level in February and had a record 54 ministers and 141 countries participating, Grossi said. A Ministerial Declaration made there reaffirmed support for the central role of the Agency in international cooperation to ensure that nuclear and other radioactive material is properly protected.

"As I have said before, I believe that funding for the IAEA's nuclear security activities needs to be put on a more sustainable footing. Nuclear security is much too important to be dependent on extra-budgetary contributions, as is the case today," he said.

Grossi also highlighted the fact that the IAEA's low-enriched uranium 'bank' in Kazakhstan - a last-resort mechanism intended to give countries confidence that they will be able to meet their future needs for nuclear fuel - "is now fully stocked and operational".


Grossi also described the Agency’s work on modernising its nuclear applications laboratories at Seibersdorf, Austria under the Renovation of the Nuclear Applications Laboratories (ReNuAL) project. In June, it achieved another milestone in that project with the opening of a new laboratories building, named after Grossi's predecessor, the late Yukiya Amano.

"Thanks to the generous support of Member States, four of the eight laboratories now occupy brand new facilities. However, the need to modernise three other laboratories was not addressed under ReNuAL and the Dosimetry Lab still requires further improvements," Grossi said. "I have therefore proposed a final phase, comprising the construction of a new building to house the remaining three labs, the refurbishment of the Dosimetry Lab wing of the existing lab building, and the replacement of our ageing greenhouses. These are essential for our work on climate-smart agriculture, resource management and food security."

The laboratories at Seibersdorf are "yet another indication of the uniqueness of the IAEA", Grossi said.

"This fantastic array of labs with our scientists and technologies working together in all these areas, supporting the inspectors, analysing their findings but at the same time working in the technical cooperation programmes that are so fundamental for the vast majority of our Member States because we are 172 - and I salute the Union of Comoros which is the latest addition to our family, with more to come.

"It is so important for so many countries who are not considering nuclear energy as the main interest when they come to the IAEA, but who need us to work on food security, to irradiate their crops so they do not go rotten, to help them manage their aquifers, so that in deserts they can still get water, to do all these things, to cure cancer patients."

Grossi said the Agency's work to help treat women with cervical cancer in poorer countries was a commitment to help "stop this bleeding of human life" from an illness that was preventable and treatable in the developed world.


The IAEA's work includes making improvements to itself as an employer, he said.

"I attach great importance to increasing the proportion of women who work for the Agency. We have made steady progress towards achieving the goal which I set when taking office of reaching gender parity in the Professional and higher categories of the Agency’s staff by 2025. 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," he said.

In order to encourage more women throughout the world to study nuclear subjects and pursue careers in this field, Grossi 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 encouraged to apply by 11 October.

"As an Agency we also care for our staff and also try and make sure that we are reflective of the world's reality where we do not live in a world with two-thirds men and one-third women, so the IAEA will get to gender parity very soon," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News