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The New Boss at the UN’s Nuclear-Power Watchdog Is Inheriting Many Problems

Rafael Mariano Grossi, an Argentine who was heavily backed by the US, becomes the new director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Dec. 2. He faces many internal and external pressures, including Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. DEAN CALMA/IAEA

VIENNA, Austria — Ensconced near the Danube River in this European city is the headquarters of the world’s single-most important means of ensuring safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear energy. Created in 1957, four years after United States President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a single-minded goal: “To accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity” while avoiding actions that would “further any military purpose.”

In October, for only the sixth time in its history, the agency’s board of governors appointed a new director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, an Argentine who will be sworn in on Dec. 2 during a special session of the General Conference, or annual meeting of the 171 countries. He succeeds Yukiya Amano, a Japanese national who died in office this year after serving, with some controversy, for 10 years.

Latin America was the first international region to ban nuclear weapons, and Grossi’s candidacy for the agency position was strongly endorsed by the US, among others. The US backed his candidacy by sending letters of support to nearly all 34 other members of the agency’s board. Grossi was going to be president of 2020 Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty review conference at the UN in New York, but Amano’s sudden death put Grossi in his new role unexpectedly.

With significant nuclear activities occurring in nearly 100 countries and an increasing risk of nonstate actors and terrorists acquiring nuclear or radioactive materials, the IAEA has what sounds like an impossibly difficult job. More than 450 nuclear power plants operate in some 30 countries, generating nearly 11 percent of the world’s electricity, a number that will likely grow in response to global warming. And the need for safety and security has never been clearer.

Just this year, we learned the terrifying details of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, the subject of a book and a documentary. More recently, we learned that in 2011, following a magnitude 9.1 undersea earthquake, a tsunami inundated the power supply of four nuclear reactors at Fukushima, resulting in the discharge of up to a million tons of contaminated water.

Known by many as simply the agency, the IAEA provides nuclear safeguards (verification); safety standards; security measures; and scientific and technological research on harnessing nuclear know-how to improve energy production (generation of nuclear power and nuclear waste management), human health (nuclear medicine and cancer radiotherapy), agriculture (pest control and plant breeding), soil and water management and animal health.

The agency has a two-year budget of 592 million euros (about $537 million) and 2,500 staff members from around the world, more than 300 of them certified inspectors.

Most of its work involves slowing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The agency uses intrusive on-site cooperative verification carried out continuously in countries that have the technology or materials for potentially making nuclear weapons, including Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Iran, Japan and South Korea. (Israel, India and Pakistan are not covered because they have not signed the international nuclear nonproliferation treaty, or NPT.)

While some countries, such as the US, have internal safeguards, IAEA inspectors are alone in having access to nuclear facilities and related materials around the world. IAEA inspectors weigh and measure the composition of nuclear materials, verify the design and operations of nuclear facilities through direct inspections, and track satellite imagery and open source information, hunting for clues of clandestine weapons activity. No single country or group of countries can match the depth and breadth of its work.

Grossi, the new director general, will inherit many challenges, not least of them questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, now in its 17th year. After the US dropped out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which strictly limited Iran’s nuclear activities, enabled unprecedented IAEA inspections and was endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council in 2015, Iran abandoned the deal’s constraints on uranium enrichment.


 

 

Iran’s move has led to the deterioration of security in the Middle East and raised the prospect of yet another war. The agency is continuing its investigation of the origin of processed natural uranium found at a site near Tehran. That discovery has raised concerns about possible undeclared nuclear activities.

At this critical moment, staff morale is at an all-time low amid charges of micromanagement, inefficiency, incompetence, overstaffing and lack of transparency and communication by the director general’s office over the past six or so years. Member states are frustrated by senior management’s shortcomings while also guilty themselves of failing to exercise statutory supervision over the agency, which has been bogged down by debate over the use of intelligence and open-source information for verification, in light of false information given to the agency by the US and Israel regarding Iraq and Iran. 

Management has been accused of poor financial oversight, including, for example, foreign-exchange losses involving tens of millions of dollars.

Then there was the enormous delay in establishing the IAEA low-enriched uranium bank in Kazakhstan, authorized by the board in 2010 but operational only this year.

Challenges waiting in the wings include possibly verifying denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, mediating between Japan and its neighbors as they deal with the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster and broadening the role of verification to feature aspects of disarmament.

Unlike the professional staff at the IAEA, the director general is not subject to term limits or a mandatory retirement age. The UN Joint Inspection Unit recommends limiting the top position to two-terms (or eight years), along with procedures to avoid conflicts of interest among member states in appointing the director general.

Grossi has said he is “absolutely independent and impermeable to pressure” and will inject new energy and momentum as the agency strives to deliver on its promise. He is already consulting with staff and member states as he prepares to take office.

Grossi can take inspiration from at least one other former director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, who exercised strict independence and neutrality and who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the agency in 2005 “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.”  

So, yes, it’s an impossibly difficult job, but it can be done.

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