In a time of "global uncertainty, anxiety and fear" the world "must come together and recommit" to "nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy", International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has said.

The IAEA's Grossi addresses the opening session (Image: Cristian de Francia/IAEA)

The IAEA chief was speaking at the opening of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations, in the USA. The reviews of the treaty take place every five years.

"We are meeting at a challenging time in history. We find ourselves at a convergence of threats to our common security and the wellbeing of all people," Grossi said.

"Wars are ravaging communities across the world, and in Europe we are faced with a conflict so grave that the spectre of a potential nuclear confrontation, or accident, has raised its terrifying head again."

He said that "war in Ukraine has added concerns over energy security and exposed the inescapable implications of our interdependence". This meant countries having to decide to depend on fossil fuels for energy or "turn more decisively to a sustainable energy mix in which nuclear is already playing a valuable round-the-clock role … only the latter choice mitigates global warming".

Nuclear energy currently provides 10% of the world’s electricity, he said, with 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries, and 55 reactors under construction in 17 countries, with Asia seeing the highest capacity growth.

"A little more than a decade removed from the Fukushima Daiichi accident, reactors are steadily coming back online. The conversation in Europe is changing too," he said, with the war in Europe leading some countries to re-evaluate decisions to phase out nuclear.

Grossi added: "Every week, developing countries come to the IAEA because they want to know when they will be able to benefit from this technology. Some people ask whether nuclear can be built quickly enough and whether governments are willing to make the investment. The answer is yes; because it has been done before: Forty per cent of the nuclear power plants we still rely on today were built in the fast and sizable response to the oil shocks of the 1970s."

He said that "everything in nuclear starts and ends with the guiding principle of safety and security first".

'Inaction is unconscionable'

Nuclear has never been safer, with changes brought in after being "tested by fire and flood" at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. "But we are being tested once again. This time by war," he said.

He repeated his call for the IAEA to be given access to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the largest in the country, which has been operated by its Ukrainian staff but under the control of Russian military forces since the start of March.

"While this war rages on, inaction is unconscionable. If an accident occurs at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, we will not have a natural disaster to blame. We will have only ourselves to answer to," he warned.

He said the IAEA was ready to return to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) "as soon as a political agreement allows it to do so" and said that on Iran, "if we are to offer the world credible assurances that Iran’s sizable and growing nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes, Iran must grant IAEA inspectors access commensurate to the breadth and depth of that programme and provide us the requisite and complete information".

Also on the opening day of the meeting, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of using Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as like a "human shield", saying: "Russia is now using the plant as a military base to fire at Ukrainians, knowing that they can’t and won’t shoot back because they might accidentally strike a nuclear - a reactor or highly radioactive waste in storage. That brings the notion of having a human shield to an entirely different and horrific level."

Blinken noted that since the NPT was drafted by 18 countries during the Cold War it has been joined by nearly all countries and "nuclear weapon states moved toward disarmament, including the United States. The number of nuclear weapons in our stockpile is now nearly 90 percent lower than it was at its height in 1967".

"This Review Conference is also an invaluable opportunity to discuss how to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict and the chance of miscommunication during a crisis" and he said the US "remains focused on enhancing the peaceful uses of nuclear technology … helping the world to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and fight the climate crisis, giving farmers new tools to boost crop yields and tackle global food insecurity, improving our ability to screen for dangerous diseases, and preventing the next pandemic. The United States wants to expand access to these essential benefits for NPT states parties. Together with the United Kingdom, we’re launching the Sustained Dialogue on Peaceful Uses to find new ways to use peaceful nuclear energy technology to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals."

UN Secretary General sets out the gathering's five goals

(Image: UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

In his opening remarks, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warned that the storm clouds that had "parted at the end of the Cold War are gathering once more".

He said: "Humanity is in danger of forgetting the lessons forged in the terrifying fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Geopolitical tensions are reaching new highs. Competition is trumping co-operation and collaboration. Distrust has replaced dialogue and disunity has replaced disarmament. States are seeking false security in stockpiling and spending hundreds of billions of dollars on doomsday weapons that have no place on our planet. Almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are now being held in arsenals around the world."

He said: "We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy."

And the NPT, and the Review Conference is needed to "hammer out the measures that will help avoid certain disaster and to put humanity on a path towards a world free of nuclear weapons … eliminating nuclear weapons is the only guarantee they will not be used - we must work relentlessly towards this goal".

He said the five priorities of the review conference were to:

Reinforce and reaffirm the 77-year-old commitment against the use of nuclear weapons.

Reinvigorate multilateral agreements and frameworks around disarmament and non-proliferation with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.

Address the "simmering tensions in the Middle East and Asia - by adding the threat of nuclear weapons to enduring conflicts these regions are edging towards catastrophe".

Promote peaceful uses of nuclear technology as a catalyst to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, including for medical and other uses benefiting humanity.

Fulfil outstanding commitments in the treaty and make sure it is kept "fit-for-purpose in these trying times".

He said "future generations are counting on your commitment to step back from the abyss. We have a shared obligation to leave the world a better, safer place than we found it".

The Tenth Review Conference is being held at the UN headquarters in New York and finishes on 26 August. 

Researched and written by World Nuclear News

Date: Wednesday, 03 August 2022
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