DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The world wants more nuclear power as a means of fighting climate change and supplying an ever-increasing demand for electricity, part of a generational shift in thinking about atomic energy, the head of the United Nations on nuclear power, the watchdog said on Thursday.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, made the comments in an interview with The Associated Press at the COP28 climate talks. He called the inclusion of nuclear power at the summit, where he said a major nuclear deal was possible, a sign of how far the formerly “taboo” subject had come decades after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters.
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But he acknowledged the challenge that still lies ahead for his agency in monitoring nuclear programs in countries, particularly Iran after the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
“This was easier when there was this international consensus and so Iran could see that this was not about political pressure, but a widespread approach that was going to see a Middle East, one of the—if not the most unstable—regions in world, so as not to add to the mix the possibility of a country acquiring nuclear weapons,” Grossi said.
Grossi said more countries acquiring nuclear weapons could create a “domino effect.”
“So it’s a very, very complicated and potentially dangerous trend,” he said.
Grossi, who has just arrived in Dubai from Paris, said he had spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron about the possible nuclear announcement that would include “a public commitment to nuclear energy, which we have never seen before”. He said such an agreement with the backing of world powers could see nuclear power become feasible for more nations.
Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gas emissions, an advantage as the world works to reduce emissions. However, nuclear power is strongly opposed by many environmentalists because of its waste.
Macron is expected to speak Saturday at the COP — or Conference of Parties. The talks are taking place just across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who had been scheduled to attend the summit, will now not attend talks about it, including Israeli officials, state news agency IRNA reported late Thursday. Iran’s energy minister will attend instead, with Iran’s foreign minister calling on the Emirates to protest Israel’s involvement in the Gaza war against Hamas following the militants’ October 7 attack.
In Iran since the collapse of the deal, the IAEA’s access to the country’s program has been restricted, to the point where inspectors have not been at the centrifuge factory since February 2021.
Asked if it was possible the centrifuges could have been diverted elsewhere from Iran outside of IAEA oversight, Grossi said: “We don’t know — and our assessment is that production continues.”
Meanwhile, Iran has begun taking clearance from veteran IAEA inspectors, further hampering its ability to monitor Tehran’s program as it now has enough enriched uranium to potentially build enough atomic bombs if it so chooses. Iran has long insisted its program is peaceful, and US intelligence agencies just this year assessed that Tehran is not actively taking steps to build a bomb.
“It’s like they took Messi out of the team,” Argentina’s Grossi said, referring to his countryman and soccer star Lionel Messi. “They took Cristiano Ronaldo out of the team and they say, ‘You still have a team’, but yes, but let’s be fair and play fair.”
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment on Grossi’s remarks.
Grossi warned that the war in Ukraine continues to target that country’s nuclear reactor network.
However, nuclear security fears persist. Grossi noted that the political push can be seen in the science of nuclear issues, particularly regarding the discharge of treated and diluted wastewater from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean.
China has banned imports of Japanese fish because of the dumping, which contains tritium at a level the IAEA believes will have a negligible impact on the environment and human health.
“We stayed there and we have independent monitoring,” Grossi said. “I think we are gradually succeeding” in convincing people.
Grossi repeated his calls for Israel to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and allow IAEA inspectors into sites such as Dimona, which is at the heart of its undeclared nuclear weapons program and under the largest construction the work of the decade.
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He also called the acceleration of nuclear weapons programs by China, Russia and the United States “a very worrying trend” that increases the risk of further proliferation around the world.
“Very clearly, and because of these renewed tensions on the international stage, we see countries increasing their arsenals, they say so publicly and of course. At the same time, with these other countries that don’t have nuclear weapons saying, “Hey, why not us?” Grossi said.