During a visit to Baghdad, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi met with Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani and senior government leaders. Talks centred on Iraq’s plans for a possible nuclear energy programme, including small modular reactors (SMRs), with strict adherence to non-proliferation norms. Decommissioning challenges and cancer care needs were also discussed.

High-level meetings centred on peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Grossi emphasised the IAEA’s support for the peaceful, safe and secure use of nuclear technology in Iraq, having also spoken of the importance of non-proliferation efforts in his written statement at the Board of Governors earlier in March. He announced that a multidisciplinary team of Iraqi experts would visit Vienna to discuss setting out a roadmap for a peaceful nuclear programme.

“The IAEA has committed to support the foundations of what should be an entirely peaceful programme here in Iraq,” he said. “We are living in a world where there is an intense growing interest in nuclear technology…. This time we are going to get it right, in strict adherence to the non-proliferation norms and international conventions, which are indispensable.”

As part of Iraq’s plans for a sustainable future, it is looking to nuclear energy to enable greater energy security and for water desalinisation projects. It is already looking into innovative nuclear technology solutions such as SMRs to meet these needs, with the support of the IAEA.

Iraq recently became a contracting party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which aims to commit countries operating land-based civil NPPs to maintain a high level of safety by establishing fundamental safety principles.

The IAEA is also intensifying its support to Iraq in the decommissioning and remediating of sites which have been contaminated with radioactive material. Grossi visited the Al Tuwaitha site to assess the situation and take stock of progress.

Once at the heart of Iraq´s nuclear programme, the Al Tuwaitha site has proved particularly challenging in terms of decommissioning and remediation. Its former nuclear facilities were destroyed due to military actions between 1981 and 2003. Many facilities were damaged or looted.

IAEA missions now underway in Iraq build on the Agency’s Iraq Decommissioning Project which ran from 2006-2012 and began the clean-up of Al Tuwaitha and other contaminated facilities and areas of Iraq. Some 20 countries and the European Commission provided financial and in-kind support. This project led to the development of decommissioning and remediation plans for some of the highest risk facilities in the country.

Fuel and enriched uranium were removed from the Al Tuwaitha site in 1993 and 1994 in an operation organised and supervised by the IAEA. However, significant amounts of other radioactive waste remain. The IAEA has been working with the Iraqi counterparts to determine the exact characterisation and volumes of the waste involved and gather more information on the decommissioning activities at the site.

The latest IAEA missions from 10 March to 22 March aim at incorporating Iraq’s advancements into a national integrated strategy for radioactive waste management, emphasising environmental safety and international standards compliance. “It’s crucial that we bring to a successful and satisfactory phase, the work of decommissioning, the work of remediation of the remnants from the past,” Grossi said.

During the visit to the Al Tuwaitha site, Grossi learned how plans for a new Iraqi low-level radioactive waste (LLW) repository are taking shape. The proposed Al Tuwaitha Disposal Facility has been designed with IAEA assistance under the EU’s Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation project and aims to provide a solution for the disposal of LLW arising from the decommissioning of Iraqi nuclear installations.

“Given Iraq's complex inventory of radioactive waste resulting from decommissioning activities and various forms of contaminated or nuclear material, the integration of its management into a single integrated strategy is imperative,” said Rebecca Robbins, an IAEA waste management expert.

As well as helping to identify and implement suitable processing technologies for solid and liquid waste at the Al Tuwaitha site, the IAEA is also assisting in the remediation of sites in the south of Iraq contaminated with depleted uranium. In parallel, the Agency is assisting Iraq in managing naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) waste arising from its oil and gas industry.

Grossi said the IAEA will intensify support for cancer care at under the IAEA’s flagship Rays of Hope scheme. This scheme aims to close the cancer care gap in lower- and middle-income countries by enabling the provision of life-saving cancer treatments, such as radiotherapy, where the need is greatest. “We are increasing our cooperation and collaboration on other applications of nuclear science and technology, starting with a very important component of nuclear medicine, oncology and radiotherapy,” he noted. "We have decided through Rays of Hope to give more support, more equipment, more training, more capacity building to Iraqis [to improve cancer outcomes].” Grossi visited the Al Amal Hospital in Baghdad. The IAEA has been working with partners to help Iraq improve cancer care since 2021.

Since 2007, Iraq has engaged in 13 IAEA technical cooperation projects, totalling €1.8m ($1.95m), to enhance nuclear safety, develop regulatory frameworks, and improve radioactive waste management in the country. These projects have had a common focus on enhancing Iraq's management of radioactive materials and waste, nuclear safety and security and protecting the environment.

Image: IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi visits the Al Tuwaitha site (courtesy of IAEA)