GC goes virtual

12 November 2020

The 64th International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference in September was held in both a physical and virtual format, for the first time in the organisation’s history. Judith Perera reports

Above: IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi delivering his opening remarks at the 64th General Conference (Photo credit: Dean Calma / IAEA)


IN LINE WITH AUSTRIAN REQUIREMENTS, delegates at this year’s IAEA General Conference (GC) were asked to observe physical distancing and to wear face masks in all meeting rooms, including the plenary hall where fixed seating was restricted to 500 at any time. Only two delegates from each member state were permitted to attend any of the GC meetings, while other UN specialised agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were permitted only one delegate each.

Despite the restrictions, more than 500 delegates from 141 of the IAEA’s 171 member states, international organisations, NGOs and the media attended. It also attracted several thousand virtual participants. All the GC plenary sessions, as well as the Scientific Forum, which took place in parallel, were streamed live.

In his opening statement, IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi said that, although work had resumed at the Agency, “things are still far from normal”. Physical distancing and other measures are in place. Non-essential travel remains suspended and most meetings and training events are taking place online. However, Grossi stressed that during the lockdown, the IAEA continued to maintain safeguards throughout the world. It also launched the largest operation in its history to help countries confront the coronavirus, with 1300 consignments of equipment for virus detection and diagnosis and other supplies delivered, or in transit, to 123 countries. “Fighting the coronavirus will remain our top priority until the pandemic is finally defeated,” he said.

Grossi warned that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic to threaten the world: “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”.

Member States will have access to equipment, technology packages, expertise, guidance and training. Decision-makers will receive up-to-date, user-friendly information that will enable them to act quickly. “We will work closely with partners such as the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisations of the United Nations,” he said.

As to safeguards, field verification work continued, although some less urgent activities, such as equipment installation and maintenance, were rescheduled. For the first time, the Agency chartered aircraft to transport inspectors to their destinations.

An important part of safeguards implementation is the performance of state or regional authorities (SRA) and state systems of accounting for and control of nuclear materials (SSAC), he said. “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.” Grossi noted that verification and monitoring activities were continuing in Iran and North Korea.

Grossi told the meeting that the modernisation of the IAEA nuclear applications laboratories at Seibersdorf – known as the Renual project - “is one of the most exciting and ambitious projects ever undertaken by the Agency”. Four of the eight laboratories now occupy new facilities. However, modernisation of three other laboratories was not addressed under Renual and the dosimetry lab still requires further improvements. “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,” he said.

Grossi said he was, “keen to ensure that the Agency’s voice is heard on the great benefits of nuclear power”. The 442 nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries today have approximately 390GW of installed capacity, supplying over 10% of the world’s electricity and around a third of all low-carbon electricity. There are 53 reactors under construction in 19 countries, which are expected to provide 56GW of new capacity. “The latest IAEA annual projections show that nuclear power will continue to play a key role in the world’s low-carbon energy mix, with global nuclear electrical capacity seen nearly doubling by 2050 in our high case scenario. Climate change mitigation remains a key potential driver for maintaining and expanding the use of nuclear power,” said Grossi.

Inspiring innovation

In the two-day Scientific Forum, which focused on Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition, topics ranged from innovations that are making nuclear power more affordable to some of the barriers hindering its deployment, such as concerns over costs and financing.

The first session opened with a look at the data underpinning the need for nuclear power in the clean energy transition. It then discussed new construction methods and innovative reactor designs and how they can support the deployment of advanced nuclear power to achieve climate goals. Topics included engineering breakthroughs for the long-term operation of existing reactors and the role of artificial intelligence and digital technology in systems combining nuclear with renewables.

Panellists pointed to the need to accelerate innovation through new partnerships and R&D funding, noting that large-scale deployment of small and large reactors can help drive down costs. Small modular reactors (SMRs), for example, could be a more affordable option for many countries, including developing nations, because of their lower capital costs.

Extending the operating life of the current reactor fleet was also seen as important, with long term operation as the cheapest, most effective investment to bring forward low carbon capacity immediately.

Innovations in the manufacturing of replacement components, for example, could help extend the life of many of the world’s 442 power reactors in operation, two thirds of which are over 40 years old.

Cedric Lewandowski, vice president of France’s EDF, said nuclear is a powerful driver of innovation and boosts R&D, from fundamental physics to developing and manufacturing new materials, instrumentation, robotics and digital technologies. Chae Young Lim, senior vice president of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, also told the meeting that SMRs combined with artificial intelligence and digital technology have the potential to improve the flexibility and scalability of nuclear power, for electricity markets in which renewables play a large role.

The panel also reviewed advances in so-called Generation IV reactor designs, such as molten salt reactors or lead cooled fast reactors, which could be deployed after 2030.


Above: Closing Session of the 2020 IAEA Scientific Forum: Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition, at the 64th IAEA General Conference (Photo credit: Dean Calma / IAEA)


Beyond electricity

The second session looked at using nuclear energy to slash emissions in hard-to-abate sectors, such as industry and transport. Panellists said non-electric nuclear applications, including desalination, process heat and hydrogen production, could help to unlock nuclear’s potential, but industrial operation of demonstration plants must be urgently scaled up.

Kazuhiko Kunitomi, deputy director general at Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency, said steel industries need large amounts of hydrogen, which could be supplied in future by high temperature gas reactors (HTGRs). Shannon Bragg- Sitton from the US Idaho National Laboratory said HTGRs could help drive down the cost of hydrogen production. Currently, however, the USA was looking to water-cooled reactors to demonstrate hydrogen production through electrolysis.

In the third session panellists discussed innovations that could help enhance the sustainability of nuclear power, including the use of fast reactors to help conserve natural resources and reduce the waste footprint.


The final session discussed the barriers to greater deployment of nuclear power in the transition to clean energy, such as concerns over costs and financing, as well as the IAEA’s role in fostering technological innovation and facilitating technology transfer to Member States.

Gloria Kwong, acting head at the Division of Nuclear Technology Development and Economics at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), said innovations in the nuclear sector that increase cost competitiveness need government support and concrete policies. “Nuclear power has high capital costs and requires investment,” she said, stressing the need to ensure competition on a level playing field for policies that value clean energy and energy security.

Grossi joined a panel with Bernard Bigot, director general of the ITER Organisation, Kirsty Gogan, co-founder of NGO Energy for Humanity and Fabricia Pineiro, member of the Board of Directors of the International Youth Nuclear Congress.

Bigot said that “Fission and fusion are very different but could be very complementary”, adding, “There is a lot to learn from each other”, including in areas related to materials, qualification of systems and components and robotics. He said the two organisations must work together, “in a joint partnership that could advance both forms of energy”.

Gogan spoke about the need to step up communication efforts. “Ultimately, the scale and urgency demand that we are evidence-based and rigorous in our solution, but we must also be rigorous in our communications and public engagement,” she said. She stressed the importance of building a wider coalition around nuclear power and the importance of communicating shared values.

Pineiro said that the nuclear sector attracts young people because it is innovating in many areas, including key industrial processes related to automation and remote operations.

Grossi told the Scientific Forum that advanced reactors, including SMRs, “are a reality and there is a lot of interest,” including from countries looking to introduce nuclear power for the first time. Challenges remain, he said, such as the financing of nuclear power plants and public communication, but innovations “are being pursued in different parts of the world”.

Author information: Judith Perera, Contributing Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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