International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos on 24 and 25 May. Nuclear provides the opportunity for a faster transition to a low-carbon energy future and supports the shift to a hydrogen economy, he told participants. In an opinion piece on the WEF website, Grossi said that nuclear is gaining increasing support in the battle against climate change, that reaching net-zero carbon emissions will require a doubling of nuclear capacity, and that technology such as small modular reactors (SMRs) and used fuel repositories are increasing nuclear accessibility and safety.
“Forty per cent of today’s operating nuclear power plants were built as a result of the last major energy crisis and now – after considerable upfront costs – supply some of the cheapest electricity in the world,” Grossi wrote, explaining that today more than 440 nuclear reactors operating across the world produce one-quarter of its low-carbon electricity, and more than 50 reactors are currently under construction.
He said that as innovations, such as SMRs, come to market, they will present more options to countries and industries. SMRs will be quicker and more affordable to build, have a greater level of inherent safety due to their design, offer more flexibility for pairing with solar and wind energy, and are being developed by many countries.
Addressing the WEF panel ‘A Nuclear Option?’ with Poland’s Minister of Climate and Environment Anna Moskwa, newcleo Ltd Founder and CEO Stefano Buono, and moderated by Thomson Reuters Editor Dmitry Zhdannikov, Grossi emphasised the importance of nuclear power in Europe’s energy mix and growing interest in nuclear globally. “In many places we see nuclear being considered as an interesting element in this family of efforts, to have a normal reconciliation of economic growth sufficiently powered, and care for the environment,” he said.
During the panel, Grossi answered a question from the audience about the ongoing status with Iran, and said revival of reinstate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under the JCPOA between Iran the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. After former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, Iran began to gradually roll back on the restrictions imposed by the JCPOA after the European parties to the agreement failed to put any measures in place to mitigate those sanctions.
Grossi said the talks were facing “a great deal of difficulty” because of non-nuclear related issues. He noted that Iran had a big and ambitious nuclear programme which would be a concern if the JCPOA was no longer in place. He added that the IAEA was working with Iran to resolve a number of other outstanding safeguards issues, in particular the origin of uranium particles found at apparently old but undeclared sites. While the JCPOA talks are now stalled, Grossi has said it is hard to imagine any agreement to revive the 2015 deal being implemented while the IAEA still had not received satisfactory answers on this issue.
"I suppose I should abstain from having a final conclusion at this point since we haven't finished the process yet but let me say that we are at a very difficult juncture at the moment," Grossi told the panel. He is due to report to the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors on how talks on the open issues have progressed by in June. "I hope that the time ... between now and the issuance of my report will (be) put to good use to come (up) at least with a start of a credible answer to these things."
Grossi also took part in another panel discussion titled ‘States of Concern’ moderated by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Distinguished Fellow, Moises Naim. He spoke about the nuclear risks from the conflict in Ukraine and the renewed interest in multilateralism globally. He said there could be no solution through unilateralism.
“You have bystanders, abstainers, analysts and you have problem solvers. You must have people who look at problems practically,” Grossi said, describing the IAEA as a problem solver. He said the use of nuclear weapons was “unthinkable” and explained that the IAEA’s focus was on avoiding nuclear accidents derived from an attack on a nuclear power plant or the release of radioactive material.
Grossi repeated that the IAEA is seeking to visit Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia NPP, under occupation by Russian forces, to verify that the 30,000 kg of plutonium and 40,000 kg of enriched uranium stored there have not been deviated for other uses. “We hope to go there to be able to prevent...a problem, or we end up finding that there are a few hundred kilograms of nuclear weapon-grade material going missing. This is what keeps us awake at night at the moment.”
He made the same points in an interview with Bloomberg. He confirmed that he was in consultations with both Ukraine and Russia to try to gain access to the site but said it was “a very peculiar situation. In response to a question about Russian statements that implied an intention to retain control of the plant, Grossi said he had no official confirmation of that and added that currently the plant was feeding power to the Ukrainian grid and not to Russia.
Ukrainian nuclear utility Energoatom on 25 May denied the presence of materials for nuclear weapons at Zaporizhzhia NPP. “Neither uranium nor plutonium, which could be used for military purposes, are stored at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Fuel assemblies are stored, but this is a completely different story. This is nuclear fuel, which, of course, is present at all nuclear power plants in the world," Energoatom wrote on its Telegram channel. The company also noted that at the NPP, used nuclear fuel is stored in a special dry storage facility, which also does not in any way relate to the "stated nonsense”.
Clearly Grossi was referring to the fact that the fresh and used fuel stored at the plant and in the reactors does indeed continue 30,000kg of plutonium, 40,000kg of enriched uranium. “And my inspectors do not have access to this," he said. He described it as “an unprecedented and unviable situation” whereby the nuclear power plant is controlled by Russian forces, but the Energoatom manages it. IAEA cannot have control nuclear safety in that situation. "So we hope to go there to prevent possible problems.”