Interview: IAEA's Grossi on Aukus, Iran and COP26

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Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was interviewed on Oct. 7 by Energy Intelligence's Stephanie Cooke as part of the Energy Intelligence Forum 2021. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of that interview.

Q: Do you see the recently announced deal for the UK and US to share nuclear propulsion technology as potentially setting a precedent for other countries? Are you concerned about an expansion in the use of nuclear for non-explosive military purposes, and does this align with the spirit of the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]?

A: The issue of nuclear naval propulsion, and in particular this project of course, has come to [the] fore because of its obvious implications regionally and globally. It is also part of our mandate to safeguard nuclear material, in particular because in this triad that we are having there is one country which is the beneficiary — or the recipient — of the technology which is a non-nuclear weapon state: Australia. So we need to make sure that by getting this technology, and in particular the nuclear material that is coming with it in the form of fuel, which [as] those knowledgeable about naval propulsion know, could involve very highly enriched uranium at weapons-degree level. So we need to make sure of a number of things.

But first of all, let me say that the ability for countries — even if they are non-nuclear weapons states — to have, or to benefit from, naval propulsion is not illegal. I should say, it wouldn't in itself be a problem, provided certain things occur. And here is where we, the IAEA, come into play.

I don't want to get too technical ... but for nonproliferation purposes what countries have are comprehensive safeguards agreements [through which] we verify that there is no diversion — that they are using the material for completely peaceful purposes. But in this case the authors of these norms, back a few decades ago, provided or included a window for the case where a country would like to avail itself of the possibility of having nuclear naval propulsion, even if they would not be part of the five countries — which by virtue of the ... NPT, are basically the five permanent members of the Security Council — a country will be able to do that.

So the issue is what must happen so that a country like Australia, or any other country that may wish to do this, can do it [while] abiding with the norms. And when I say abiding with the norms ... it is because we are talking about a military vessel. We are talking about a vessel that is going to be — as should be the case for a nuclear submarine — it will be sailing out in the sea. And because of this, a good amount of nuclear material would be excluded out from our inspections.

Q: I was [essentially] trying to ask if you expect it to become an issue in the upcoming NPT review conference? And if you see it as a kind of norm breaker? (Even though yes, there is a loophole in the Non-Proliferation Treaty allowing for this kind of thing.) The look of it is really what I was asking you.

A: Well, of course it's not an unimportant thing. It's not an unimportant matter. I wouldn't call it a loophole, because a loophole would have been inadvertent. It was intentional, because people had this in their minds, in the Sixties: it was still the years of all the ebullience about nuclear energy and nuclear propulsion, and there were many projects. Finally, none occurred.

So the point I'm trying to make here, Stephanie, is that the possibility exists, but it has never been done before. So this poses a lot of technological, commercial [and] design challenges, and from my own angle (which is to safeguard the material) as well, because we will have to figure it out.

And by figure it out I mean, we'll have to sit down with the countries and have a system which will be adapted to the situation, which minimizes the time where this material will be out of the reach of my inspectors, and that I will have the ability to account for every single gram of it when the core of the reactor is unloaded, or there are any changes. And this is where we are in front of very important groundbreaking activity in terms of safeguards, from a technical point of view and from a legal point of view.

Q: I'd like to switch gears and ask you what you hope to accomplish at the upcoming climate change meeting in Glasgow. Will you be the only voice there for nuclear power?

A: I don't know. I would hope not. I'm making sure that I am there.

You know the very first trip I undertook as a freshly anointed director general, in December 2019, before Covid-19 — if you have a "B.C." that means before Covid-19 — my first trip was to Madrid, where the previous conference took place. And that in itself, that decision shocked some of my colleagues here at the agency, because they felt that that was hostile territory for anything nuclear.

And I said at the time that it was evident to me that if we would take seriously what was going on in terms of global warming and all the situation around it, we would have — at the very least — to assert what I said at that time: That nuclear must have a place, and has a place, at the table. We do not pretend to be the leading voice, we do not pretend to have a magic wand to solve the problem. But it is obvious that the energy that is producing one-third of the clean energy produced today in the world — and much more if we compare economies in industrialized countries — should be present.

That was the first, and for this one [COP26], I think I'm better prepared. At least I'm not shocking my colleagues here in Vienna. They know that we are coming, and the organizers know it, and they welcome it. And I'm very grateful for the kind of constructive preparation I've been able to do with President-designate [Alok] Sharma and others in preparation for that.

And what I want to achieve is something which is simple. I want to achieve a dialogue that is inclusive, and that obviously recognizes the role, the current role of nuclear, and most importantly the future role of nuclear to get to where we want to be. Which is a decarbonized economy by 2050, if we believe that political commitments that have [been made]. I'm going to be meeting with lots of people there, and hopefully having a good conversation. An honest science-based conversation.

Q: And these conversations would be with other government officials, or energy agencies?

A: All of that. We are participating in and organizing every kind of side event, with the young generation, with environmentalists, in the energy sphere. So wherever nuclear energy has a place or a role, we are happy to be discussing, and it's going to be evident when the program becomes public.

Q: What is your view of small modular reactors [SMRs]? Do you think they have a role in the energy transition?

A: Of course. As director general of the IAEA, I see lots of people, important people, ministers — and ministers of energy more than foreign ministers. And I can tell you that I have a line of energy ministers, especially from developing countries, and they ask one question to me: When are the SMRs ready?

Q: Well, you certainly are doing your best to highlight the potential contributions of nuclear energy. On that topic, we understand that in Saudi Arabia nuclear developers have more or less decided on a site — if they do build a nuclear power plant, and that's still a big if — they've decided on a site at Khor Duweihin on the Mideast Gulf coast, which is of course across the water from Iran. I've heard people say that perhaps it isn't the best site in the world considering the geopolitics of the region and just from a technical standpoint because of the Gulf's shallow waters. Are you concerned that if they do build a plant there, it could become a target and another hotspot in the region?

A: Your question, Stephanie, is full of ifs and a lot of speculation.

Q: Granted.

A: I would say that we all know — and this is public information — that Saudi Arabia has plans to move forward with a nuclear power program. They know that the agency is there to assist them like we did, for example, with the United Arab Emirates, which successfully developed a very ambitious nuclear power plant program following our milestones approach, and the guidance that we give to them in the regulatory area and others. And we would be ready to do the same with Saudi Arabia.

When it comes to siting, first of all, as you rightly said, there is no decision yet. And if and when that happens, the IAEA has specific advisory services where detailed analysis of the siting and external events is provided. So perhaps our Saudi friends will ask for our technical opinion about it. But again, this is highly speculative.

At the moment, all Saudi Arabia has is a low-power research reactor in the kiloton range, which is basically a training and education machine, which is not even finished, and has not been produced. So we are talking about a future prospect.

Q: I'd like to turn now to a question that I know is of great interest to our audience, which is the question of Iran and the JCPOA [the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. I think that people in our audience are not always exactly clear what the agency's role in Iran is. You yourself have spent a lot of time there in your career, before you were even director general, and your agency has had more access to nuclear facilities there than in any other country in the world. But as we all know, after the US withdrew from the JCPOA, and the Iranians responded in kind, your window on their program, your visibility, has shrunk. But you still do have visibility. So perhaps you could explain what you are still able to see, what you aren't able to see. But also what are your basic concerns right now about Iran? Are you worried that they may be again on a path to developing nuclear weapons?

A: Our role is indispensable there, and has always been. Because we inspect the [nuclear] program in general, over and above the JCPOA. The JCPOA is a very particular kind of agreement, where we got a mandate to do more, apart from the normal inspections and activities that we carry out in Iran, come rain or come shine. Because of the scope of the JCPOA, because of the width of the nuclear program in Iran, it was agreed — and Iran agreed — to have the IAEA inspecting more.

We are the guarantors or whatever is decided. That is perhaps a simple way to describe what we do. The issue is, as you were describing in the introduction, the tit-for-tat dynamic that unfortunately started once the United States withdrew from the agreement, and Iran started moving away gradually from its commitments under the JCPOA. Then of course, the visibility and the degree of inspections that we have, have been reduced. True.

As of February of this year, I went there a few times. And I've been trying to preserve as much [as possible the] monitoring and verification activities on top of the the minimal verification that always happens in any case. I've been trying to preserve that. So that if and when there is a return to JCPOA, as many around the world expect, then we would be able to still be a reservoir of information about what has been happening in all these facilities since Iran, for example, stopped applying the Additional Protocol or other additional transparency measures that they were observing which were very important.

Since they stopped doing this, I've been trying to come with a few stopgap agreements that would allow us to continue, even in this limited way, to have this information with us. This is in a fragile state at the moment. Because there has been a change of government, as we all know. This is a government that has very firm views on its collaboration with the West and with the IAEA, and their views on JCPOA and on cooperation with the IAEA are also colored by this approach that some call hard line. You can define it in whatever way. As director general I would never qualify the approaches of countries, I just take note of them and work on them. So what I see is all these limitations, but it's my duty to never throw [in] the towel and to continue.

Q: You are working with an extremely difficult situation, which raises another question. We all know that the agency's basic role is to resolve difficult nuclear proliferation issues through peaceful means. Do you feel, as the agency's leader, that the use of non-peaceful means in the past, including sabotage, assassinations and other means, is thwarting your efforts?

I'm speaking specifically of something that I found rather shocking in the last quarterly report on Iran, which revealed that agency cameras — one had been destroyed, one had been damaged. These inspectors work very hard. This equipment costs money. And now there doesn't seem to be much hope of getting cameras reinstalled in that particular facility, which manufactures centrifuges for the enrichment plants. I guess I'm curious as to why the agency doesn't speak out more about that? Do you think this impedes your efforts, when you have to constantly go to Iran and deal with a government that is also confronting these attacks on its nuclear program?

A: Your question is much more than a question. It's a question and it's a sharp commentary on what's happening. I would say the following.

First of all, I'm the director general of an international organization dealing with nonproliferation. As such, as [someone] with almost 40 years of work for nonproliferation, in different forums and different functions, I'm a diplomat. So I don't believe in the use of force, and we condemn the use of force. And in fact, it's not me who does it, the General Conference of the IAEA has been very clear about this, in resolutions adopted several times over past episodes, saying that any attack on a nuclear facility is something that should be condemned.

In this case, I don't have any investigative role and I don't have a political role. I put myself on the spot because I have a responsibility. It's not my role to have a political commentary on the perpetrators of an act of sabotage. I don't have this ability — to investigate or to know what may have happened. As a general rule, as a general principle, I would say violence is never a means to achieve anything unless it is in self-defense, as the charter of the United Nations also recognizes. It's a very problematic issue. It's an issue that is in the political realm. So it's not for me to characterize it.

But I would say in this particular case, there was an incident there, and as a result of that incident some of our equipment was affected. Of course we understand the frustration of those who would like to see the director general saying that this country, or that country has been doing this. It's not my role. And it will never be my role. I would undoubtedly, and without hesitation, say that violence is never a way to achieve things.

But as much as I say this, I would say that the agency needs to restore its monitoring capacity. It cannot be understood that because of the source of these events, the agency is not able to restore its monitoring capacities. So we are respectfully reminding Iran that we need to restore our monitoring capacities there.

It's a very sensitive issue, I understand, but I think my position is very clear.

Q: The IAEA's continuity of knowledge of Iranian nuclear activities is important, because if there is a new JCPOA, you need to have a baseline from which to start. You need to say, this is how much enriched material is here, and this is how many centrifuges are there. But it seems to me that the loss of the time [and access] from the end of August till now means that there's a break in the continuity of knowledge. Would you agree with that?

A: I am confident on our ability to reconstruct the continuity of knowledge, but of course this has also a limit.

Q: Here's a question from the audience: Are you yourself trying to do anything to bring Iran back to the table to revive the JCPOA?

A: Yes and no.

No, in the sense that if they come back to the JCPOA table, it will not be because I asked them. This is an agreement among Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany), and the European Union acting as a coordinator. So they have to decide if they want to go back to it.

But yes in the sense that as the guarantor of the whole thing, we are the only ones that can say this is very viable. This is where they have to be looking. [We] are frequently supporting these talks, these conversations. As you were saying [when] you were asking me about the continuity of knowledge, things are very linked when it comes to Iran. So if we are not able to tell the international community, the P5+1, that they can have clarity on what has been going on in Iran, I would say perhaps they would have questions.

Q: Here's a zinger from the audience: Why have you spent so much time talking about Iran's nuclear program and not about Israel's nuclear program?

A: Well, there is a very clear reason. Our relation with Israel is based on the one that you have with a country which is not a party to the NPT. Israel never signed the treaty. ... I'm not judging if this is good or bad. I hope they would, because I believe in the universality of this treaty, but instead they have a decision not to do that. But when you have a country that doesn't do that, the degree of inspection that we have is limited to whatever they declare. And we have a couple of places where we go and verify. In the case of Iran, Iran, like most countries in the world, is a party to the NPT, and from that legal status you will derive a number of obligations that they have. Not political gestures, but legal obligations that they have. Hence our much bigger role — not only in Iran, but in all the other 192 state parties to the NPT.

Q: That raises a very interesting point because the worst eventuality, I suppose, from the nonproliferation point of view would be if Iran was ever tempted to leave the NPT. I mean, you hear an answer like that and they might say, well, why should we be in it? I mean, look at, look at what we have to suffer from being in it. Are you at all worried that that could happen?

A: I think that it would be a bad thing, not only for the Iranians but for the world, for the international community.

Look at — and I'm not talking about Iran now — look at the world map and see which other countries that are not in the NPT. The countries that are not in the NPT are countries that are not there because they developed nuclear weapons. Either they are permitted to have them, as [in] the case of the five original legitimate possessors of nuclear weapons — and when I say legitimate it's based on law. I'm not saying that it's good or bad, because people judge intentions here and I'm not judging that; this is a fact.

And then you have other countries that proliferated. That decided to have the weapons. And when you look at that you see a situation which is bad. I don't want nuclear weapons. My entire life has been devoted — starting with my own region, and my own country [Argentina] — to making sure that there are no more nuclear weapons.

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