Grossi Gets Ahead of the Evolving Nuclear Agenda

Topping the list of necessary skills for an effective Director General (DG) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are the ability to walk a political tightrope, often without a net, while orchestrating multiple rings of the global nuclear circus.

Despite this taxing high-wire act, the new DG, Rafael Grossi, has decided that the job also requires a new skill set – vision. He clearly sees where the nuclear world is headed and is determined to get ahead of the trends.

This feature of his tenure became very apparent during a recent webinar, hosted by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, when he highlighted four key issues that require high-level attention and that will differentiate him from his predecessors.

The highest profile concern is the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change and supporting the global movement toward zero-carbon emissions by mid-century. The Agency entered into this debate in earnest with a Fall 2019 international conference on the issue.

But the most remarkable move was Grossi’s appearance at the United Nations (U.N.) Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) of the U.N. Framework Agreement in Madrid in December of that year. It was his first trip as the new DG and he made a stark declaration, “We came here with a clear message from the IAEA: nuclear energy is part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

Like everything else, the COVID pandemic disrupted Grossi’s post-COP plans, but he has stated his intention to again be present at the Glasgow COP scheduled for November of this year and is seeking partners to support this engagement.

Elevating the role of nuclear power as a part of the IAEA and COP missions received the support of the former Secretary of Energy, Ernie Moniz. During the webinar, Moniz said, “there are too many organizations, individuals, and countries that want to exclude nuclear” as well as other cutting-edge technologies that can reduce carbon emissions. He added, “having the agency out front in promoting that discussion on the nuclear side is really critical.”

Nuclear security is another issue that has had a high profile, particularly during the Obama-era heads-of-state Nuclear Security Summits (NSS). But its salience has fallen significantly in the post-summit period. This decline was partly attributable to the unfortunate inability of the summits to build a bridge for all stakeholders to continue to engage collaboratively on the agenda. It also was a function of Russia’s opposition to Obama’s initiative as well as the allergy of the Trump administration to its predecessor’s priorities.

But the reality is that there was not much oxygen left in the nuclear security silo if it could not link to more relevant global concerns, like the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change. Strengthening the link between these two issues and their connection to global security, has been the driving force behind the pioneering activities of the Global Nexus Initiative. In a sign that this policy intersection is rising in global relevance, it recently has been afforded a higher profile by a major U.S. philanthropic foundation.

Grossi asserted that the “heroic” phase of nuclear security is “behind us” while the “enormity of the challenge” posed by nuclear materials remains globally relevant. In his view, the new response requires that standards be raised through a depoliticized, agency-focused approach centered on specific situations and threats, including those posed by emerging technologies.

Looking forward, Grossi makes clear that he views the evolution of civil nuclear technology toward small modular and advanced reactors, “not with fear but with hope.” He noted that it is up to the IAEA to, “find the safety, and security, and safeguards, and nonproliferation practices” that will make possible the contribution of these new technologies to global economic, energy, and scientific advancement. One motivation is a constant stream of officials from developing countries that tell him “we need these reactors.”

In order to facilitate the safe and secure deployment of these technologies, Grossi is a strong proponent of engaging with the global nuclear industry. This has not traditionally been a priority or even a serious consideration for previous DGs. One of the legacies of the NSS process was the active participation of the nuclear industry and civil society, which hosted their own side summits. This engagement provided both communities with deeper and broader contact with the Agency than in the past.

These communities continue to be valuable to the IAEA, but Grossi has emphasized the importance of creating a relationship with industry. He noted that he has begun a “real, serious dialogue with industry” by talking with CEOs of major companies around the world because “we need to understand each other.” He concedes that building these relationships may be a difficult challenge, but he noted, “not impossible.”

The IAEA has serious responsibilities, many of them legacy issues of nuclear operations and nonproliferation challenges. But the global nuclear landscape is evolving rapidly and is being driven by new issues including climate change, novel technologies, and shifting alliances. The new DG seems to understand the importance of these new nuclear issues and that his legacy will be linked to how he manages them. His mission, he noted, “is about delivering results.” Acknowledging that there is a new nuclear agenda is a good start toward that goal.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security