Analysis

Perspectives from the IAEA General Conference

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US Energy Secretary addressing the IAEA General Conference (photo source: IAEA)

Highlights

  • Demand for nuclear energy and its peaceful applications is on the rise globally
  • The United States has re-affirmed its withdrawal from JCPOA calling upon Iran to comply with international security measures
  • Sanctions on North Korea will remain until it takes concrete steps in denuclearising the Korea Peninsula
  • Syria, Iran and Israel continue to be the areas in the Middle East where complete implementation of the IAEA safeguards is needed
  • Key resolutions were adopted including implementation of safeguards to strengthen global nuclear security

Vienna – With more than 170 countries and international organisations meeting at the Austrian capital, Vienna, the IAEA has had a busy week discussing issues of global concerns. This included the peaceful application of nuclear energy in food, electricity, and climate change, strengthening global security, and the implementation of safeguards.

  • Peaceful application of nuclear technology

The demand for peaceful use of nuclear energy is rising globally with many new countries considering, planning or already constructing nuclear plants for electricity purposes in the developing world. Nuclear power remains an important option for many of the IAEA Member States. China, the world’s largest CO2 emitter is expanding its nuclear activities with 13 new reactors are under construction. Other countries in the Middle East are on-track in introducing nuclear energy into their energy mix including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and Egypt. Furthermore, exploration for uranium resources is an area of interest in the Middle East, as highlighted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a resource-rich country, which is planning to make a full use of its natural resources by exploring for uranium mines. Such exploration would enable supplying fuel of its planned nuclear power reactors, locally without a need for foreign imports.  

At the scientific forum, which was devoted this year for Nuclear Technology for Climate Change Mitigation, many challenges were discussed in terms of nuclear energy economics which remains a major challenge in absence of global carbon prices. Furthermore, although nuclear is a carbon-free form of energy, many countries in the developed world do not view nuclear energy as a sustainable option given the fact that it produces hazardous radioactive waste. This was confirmed, for instance, in the statement of the delegate of Luxemburg, a member of the EU, who highlighted that nuclear is not considered for Sustainable Development Goals or climate change as its cost-competitiveness is declining. 

Many countries in Africa who are not considering introducing nuclear technology into their energy mix are in cooperation with the IAEA to make use of nuclear technology for cancer treatment, and agricultural crop treatment. For instance, Zimbabwe is working with the IAEA for the early detection and better management of cancers, fighting the foot-and-mouth disease and tsetse-fly infestation, and the artificial insemination programme for cattle. In Brazil, further development of the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) for the control or eradication of malaria, dengue, Zika and disease-transmitting mosquitos, which remain an extremely severe threat to the health of millions of people worldwide. The need for raising public awareness about the potential of nuclear technology was highlighted by HRH Princess Sumaya of Jordan who spoke about her country’s experience in successful implementation of nuclear technology. Progress is being made in safety, innovation, and economics of nuclear reactor technologies with the development of Micro-reactors, a convenient small size reactor with a capacity of around 1 MW designed for small and portable power applications.

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The IAEA Scientific Forum devoted for Nuclear Technology for Climate Mitigation (Photo source: IAEA)

  • Nuclear safety and security

Many countries highlighted nuclear security in their statements as a major global issue of a continued concern. For instance, Iraq has highlighted a significant progress in strengthening its security in combating terrorism and regaining control over nuclear sites which were controlled by terrorist groups that contained dangerously radioactive materials. Currently, the possession of nuclear materials is protected by the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) which was ratified by most of the IAEA member states. This convention is a legally-binding agreement to protect nuclear facilities and material which are in peaceful domestic use, storage or transport. Implementation of the convention is necessary as the demand for civil use of nuclear energy increases. Furthermore, the safety of nuclear power plants, especially after the Fukushima accident in Japan, continues to be an issue of global concern. The EU, for instance, has highlighted lessons from the Fukushima accident in Japan which has triggered its countries to take effective measures in strengthening emergency response by adopting an amended Council Directive on Nuclear Safety. Many other nuclear safety and security concerns continue to be in the Middle East. For instance, Saudi Arabia has highlighted the rising concerns of the risks associated with the Iranian Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant which is situated in a seismically active area on the Arabian Gulf, closer to some cities in the Arabian Gulf area than to the Iranian capital itself. That will potentially lead to a potential human and environmental catastrophe that would significantly affect the reputation of the nuclear industry. This concern is rising as Iran is expanding the Bushehr nuclear plant by constructing phases 2 and 3 adding to its phase 1 plant which can generate 30 TWh of electricity.  Such expansion would necessitate action from the IAEA and the international community on containment of risky nuclear plants before their construction. 

  • Nuclear disarmament and implementation of safeguards

The issues of Implementation of safeguards and nuclear disarmament have been intensively debated at the IAEA General Conference. Many countries including Brazil, Guatemala and Zimbabwe, have stressed that universal implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) cannot be achieved in the absence of nuclear disarmament calling for a world free of nuclear weapons. Progress has been made in nuclear disarmament with the recent agreement between the United States and the DPRK. However, the US sanctions on North Korea will remain until North Korea takes concrete steps towards the complete de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula while removing all its ballistic missile capability. The IAEA has decided to adopt the resolution GC62/L8 on the implementation of IAEA safeguards in the DPRK, a resolution which was made by consensus of its member states.

The United States has re-affirmed its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement which has been made with Iran to facilitate its nuclear programme, describing it as a flawed agreement. Although the EU, China and Russia are still in support of the JCPOA, the United States has announced that it is re-imposing sanctions against Iran and it is seeking a deal that fully addresses Iran’s nuclear programme, its proliferation activity, and destabilising activity in the region. Furthermore, the United States has called upon Syria to cooperate fully with the IAEA on inspection of its nuclear activities particularly in Dair Alzour where an undeclared, secretive suspicious nuclear reactor was built, making Syria in potential violation the NPT and its safeguards obligations.

Other issues were brought for discussion by the Arab group including the issue of Israeli nuclear capabilities calling for making the Middle East an area free of nuclear weapons. So far, the lack of political will has been the reason for the failure of the application of safeguard measures in the Middle East. The Israelis, who continue to strengthen their nuclear capabilities, have rejected putting their nuclear installations under inspection claiming that the NPT does not provide a guarantee for the security of Israel in an area of ongoing geopolitical instability. The United States, the largest supporter of Israel, has regretted bringing the Israeli nuclear capabilities on the discussion at the General Conference calling upon the Arabs to engage with a full dialogue with Israel. The United States views Israel nuclear arsenal as legitimate and that Israel is not in violation of the IAEA safeguards.

Saudi Arabia and many other Arab states have called upon the international community to cooperate towards freeing the Middle East of nuclear weapons and full implementation of the NPT. The Arabs and a lot of the non-Arab IAEA member states are calling for the inclusion of Israel in the NPT and implementation of safeguards across all of its nuclear installations. “Discriminatory application of safeguards is not fair in the Middle East”, said the Iraqi envoy. Most countries have voted “yes” for the implementation of safeguards in Israel, a resolution which was decided by consensus.


 

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