Rafael Mariano Grossi. Director General at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, explained his non-participation in the inaugural Peace Summit with the intention not to mix political aspects with the Agency's technical work.
19.06.2024 15:20

In an interview with an Ukrinform correspondent in Vienna, Grossi explained his position on why he generally prefers not to voice political statements, including demands for Russia to withdraw forces from the Zaporizhzhia NPP. At the same time, the head of the IAEA expressed hope that Ukrainians, who generally praise clarity, will understand the balance required to fulfill the tasks of avoiding a nuclear accident.

The top official also touched upon the problem of spent fuel at the ZNPP, the invaders’ plans to resume operations at the facility, sanctions against Russia and Rosatom, failure to fulfill resolutions regarding the return of the ZNPP to Ukraine’s control, a possible IAEA reform, and other issues.


- Mr. Grossi, could you describe the biggest challenge you have faced since becoming the Director General of the IAEA?

- Well, there are many, and certainly the situation and the security of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have been one of them.

As you know, this organization, because of its agenda, has many important issues before it: the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, rather the situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria, North Korea, and many other important matters, such as how to deal with the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident and related developments. But clearly, the situation around not only Zaporizhzhia, but also our activities in many other places in Ukraine, is, of course, the one posing the most imminent danger in terms of avoiding a nuclear accident.

So this is one of the things that keeps us busy, not only myself, but the Agency in general, which is very mobilized in this regard.

- About Zaporizhzhia, many Ukrainians feel the IAEA has not taken a strong enough stance against Russia’s occupation of the plant, but also Chernobyl NPP…

- Thank you for the opportunity to explain this directly through you to a Ukrainian audience, because I think it's very important that the Ukrainians understand one thing, which I have discussed many times, including with President Zelensky.

The IAEA has a very concrete role to play there, because the IAEA is the only international organization deployed and permanently working in occupied territory, in Ukrainian territory, which has been occupied, specifically at a piece of infrastructure that belongs to Ukraine that is under Russian management. It's not nice to hear or to say, but this is the reality.

This means that for us to be able to protect the facility, to work efficiently there, we need to focus on the technical work that we have to perform there. And it's a very delicate balance, because, quite clearly, I interact with the Ukrainian government – and there is no problem with the President, Foreign Minister, Minister of Energy, Nuclear Regulator, and entire community in Ukraine – but I also must interact with the Russian management and even with their government, as they are in control.

The discussion here isn't about whether this is good or bad. For the IAEA, it's very clear that this is a Ukrainian facility.

But I would not be making my job any easier if I involved myself into the area of political statements. This would make my work considerably more difficult, if not impossible.

Thus, the IAEA's situation is a very unique one, because we need to have a functional working relationship with Russia.

And I would say this is not unique to the IAEA; in international law you have situations similar to this, where there is even UN jurisprudence indicating that if for functional reasons, for operational reasons, you have to deal with a belligerent that may be occupying territory, you must do it. And this is what we are doing.

It would be even more clear. Ukrainians are very clear people. If I go and tell somebody, "You must go away, you are a thief, you are this or that," it's very difficult to work the next day. And to work on nuclear safety, nuclear security, and others very technical things that we need to protect.

So this is why we need to be laser-focused on what we are doing and try to be efficient. Because what is my role there? My role there is to avoid a nuclear accident. And this is what we are focusing on.

I hope that the Ukrainian society understands that when it comes to the IAEA, the position of the Agency must be very well-balanced to do the job. It's as simple as that.


- We also understand that the IAEA does not have the authority to impose sanctions on individual states, but could the Agency be a more active voice in calling for international sanctions against Russia for endangering nuclear safety?

- Again, this is a point which I would say even transcends Ukraine. It goes beyond Ukraine.

The Russian industry is very heavily involved in many countries, including the United States, as you know. They export uranium fuel to many countries in Europe. There are many VVR reactors that depend on nuclear technology or parts and components coming from Russia. This creates a situation which is problematic.

This is why many countries in the West, for example, are passing legislation and trying to reduce this dependency. But for the moment, the industrial supply chain, the global supply chain, is established in such a way that it still requires, even for the functioning and safety of many reactors, that these channels of communication and commercial ties do exist.

And this is why, and you wouldn't be surprised, there haven't been sanctions in this area, in spite of the very clear political position of the United States or France or any European countries, etc.

So, this is again an area where sanctions differ in nuclear from other industries because you cannot switch off as quickly as you can in other sectors. This is what explains the situation.

- On sanctions, what do you think about the sanctions against Rosatom? Ukraine calls to impose sanctions against this Russian state-owned company. What's your stance on this?

- Well, again, as I just explained, we do not have a say in sanctions. The IAEA does not have any mandate on sanctions, not even on nuclear or any other. We don't have a capacity or a voice in that.

But I would repeat what I said. What I see is that Rosatom is a company that is very present in many countries around the world. So perhaps even sanctioning Rosatom could have bad consequences in terms of nuclear safety or security, because they are providing fuel and services in many countries.

As you know, they are, like it or not, the world's number one vendor of nuclear reactors. They export to many countries. They are building nuclear power plants in many countries.

So it is not easy for these clients to disengage. This is why these countries are not asking for sanctions. Maybe they are condemning Russia politically, but when it comes to the nuclear industry, they are not asking for sanctions because they need their reactors for their own economy.


- But Russia has also not been punished for the occupation of the nuclear power plant in Ukraine under the IAEA Statute. Does the Statute even provide for any consequences for member states that invade a neighboring country and occupy a nuclear facility?

- Well, this is an issue that is not for the Director General to look into. It's for the member states, for the countries. Do they want to do something?

There are possibilities, for example, and this has happened in the past, to suspend technical cooperation for countries that, for whatever reason, might be found in disregard of the Statute of the IAEA. This has been considered.

My understanding is that member states, for some of the reasons I mentioned, don't believe that this kind of action would be useful. Perhaps that's the word: "useful," because it would create a number of problems. But this, I would say, is a matter that maybe should be better addressed to countries rather than to the Director General.

What the Agency does in terms of the presence of Russia, for example, has been discussed at the IAEA, whether this is good or bad. We know that the position of countries is very clear. Many, many countries condemn, and don't forget there have been resolutions approved by the Board of Governors and the General Conference of the IAEA, which include censure of the actions undertaken by Russia.

So, the policy-making organs of the IAEA have not stayed silent. They haven't taken further steps for some of the reasons I am describing to you now.

- You have mentioned the resolutions. So, the question here is how the IAEA plans to enforce these resolutions, especially regarding the immediate withdrawal of unauthorized personnel from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant?

- Again, the IAEA does not have the powers to enforce resolutions, and even less, resolutions that would imply using military force, because what you are telling me is that we should expel people from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. So, this is beyond. And mind you, the resolutions are not saying that the IAEA should do that. The resolutions are saying that Russia should leave the plant. They are not saying that the IAEA is enforcing this; no international organization has the capacity to do this.

What we try to do is to give the plant support, to keep the Ukrainian nuclear regulator duly informed, to consult with them, to interact with them, and also to, very importantly in my opinion, be there under the terms of the agreements with Ukraine. This is why every time we go to the plant, every time I go to the plant, we go through Ukrainian territory and then we, of course, come to a point where there is a line of contact, and we have to cross into occupied territory.

- What concrete influence does the IAEA actually have over Russia in ensuring the safety of Zaporizhzhia…

- I think the IAEA has a very important role, and in terms of the influence, it's perhaps for others to judge, but I believe that our presence there, our interaction there, has had a very important impact and influence on the situation. I am persuaded that if the IAEA had not been there permanently as it is, we would have already faced a nuclear accident.

I'm not saying that the mission is accomplished, because until peace or until we come to a better situation, a more stable situation than now, we will not be able to claim that the situation is better.

But so far, I think we have been able, every time there is a problem, every time there has been a blackout threatening the safety of the plant, every time there has been an attack, to inform immediately, assess the situation there, and bring, I would say, a measure of reassurance to the public in Ukraine and in neighboring countries, including Russia.

Because if there is a radioactive accident, everybody will be affected. This will not stop at the borders. This will affect many, many people.


- Taking into consideration what has been said about Zaporizhzhia, don't you think that there is a need to transform the Agency into a more powerful body with more effective response mechanisms?

- I think a profound reflection on the lessons learned from the conflict will take place at some point. And I think this will depend to a great extent on the outcome of the situation. Where are we at the end of this very tragic situation that we are seeing? Are we going to be in a situation where things are going to be redressed and the plant will go back to Ukraine? Are we going to see a freeze in the situation? Are we going to see an even worse, God forbid, situation? I don't know.

To think at this point about what kind of evolution we should see is premature. That being said, I think the Agency has been transformed.

What the Agency is doing is something that was not planned. The fact that the Agency could deploy in an occupied territory, in a combat zone, and act independently, because there we do not take instructions from anybody. We do what we feel we need to do, we report without any censorship. Or I should add, we go to all the other nuclear sites in your country, to Chernobyl, to Rivne, to Khmelnytskyi, or to South Ukraine, and deploy also permanent teams to protect, to assist, to support the nuclear community in the country, which is something unprecedented. It has never happened before.

I established seven fundamental pillars for nuclear safety and security, and five concrete principles, which are mentioned now as the standard. Now everybody, everywhere I go, recite by memory, seven pillars, five concrete principles. We should respect this. I'm sure that this has become, I would say, an undisputable point of reference that will be applied every time in situations, hopefully not again, with invasions or things like this.

I am a diplomat with 40 years of experience, so I don't believe in the use of force in international relations, but were this to happen, we now have a number of very concrete guidance that tell us what the concrete functions are that should be preserved as part of the pillars, for example, or the actions that should be avoided in the area of the five principles in order to avoid a nuclear accident.

I think that this transformation of the Agency is already taking place, in front of our very eyes. Whether this is going to harden further into some enforcement capability, like you were saying, is different, and this is something that member states should have to decide on and agree.


- You have mentioned the mission of the Agency at the Zaporizhzhia NPP, but we should also address some issues with reporting, because the mission doesn't have unrestricted and immediate access to all places and facilities it wants to visit. Don't you think that the Russian administration at the nuclear plant is just showing so-called "Potemkin villages" to the monitors, only the places that are prepared?

- No, that's too much. It's true that they do not always give us all the access that we need. We insist, and not only do we insist, I say it, I report it. So, everyone is clear on where we are.

But to pretend that we are looking at an artificial, as you say, Potemkin village – something which is not real – no.

Our experts are highly skilled. They are very experienced experts and know very well how to separate truth from lies. And they have a lot of visibility on what is going on at the plant.

- At a recent meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, Ukraine's Energy Minister German Galushchenko said that the information in the notes sent by Russia to the IAEA Secretariat on the situation at Zaporizhzhia NPP was false: up to 90% of the major repairs of the main safety equipment have not been completed. How does the IAEA verify such claims given the restricted access?

- Well, we check. Don't forget that we do not simply get information. We have our own experts walking down the plant every day. So, when a certain safety exercise is performed or some equipment is replaced, we go and check whether this has been done or not.

We are not in passively receiving of information, and then we publish it. This is the whole point. Otherwise, we would not be there.

- What is the IAEA's strategy for managing the critical issue of expiring nuclear fuel at ZNPP, particularly given the complexities surrounding its safe removal and storage?

- It's an important issue. We have received information from the Ukrainian nuclear regulator, and we have also been in touch with Westinghouse in order to look into this. And we have raised this issue with the Russian regulator and with the Russian management at the plant. And there is currently a technical discussion with them on this matter.

I should add to this that this is a real issue. At the same time, it's not an immediate safety problem. It is more a question of looking at the licensing period, how this would impact, in the medium term, the safety of the fuel, so that we can take action before that.

- And could Russia load its own fuel into the ZNPP?

- Theoretically, yes. I don't know whether they are planning to do this.

- And what would the reaction of the Agency be if Russia did do it? Will it not be violating the norms of the Agency?

- Well, again. They are occupying something that belongs to Ukraine. So every action in this case would be theoretically vitiated by this original act of possession.

But once they are there, they take operational decisions.

What we do is we look at these decisions from a technical point of view. Is this safe? Is this not safe? Et cetera.

So we are not saying every time this does not belong to you. This is assumed. From the moment I say this is a Ukrainian nuclear facility, it is clear who the owner of the facility is. And then we look into the technical factors, the technical decisions that are taken.


- There are also risks of a potential blackout of all Ukrainian nuclear power plants, similar to what occurred in November 2022, especially considering the ongoing Russian missile attacks on the energy sector of Ukraine. Are you in contact with the Russian side on this issue? What will be the Agency's response if Russia again causes a complete blackout and endangers all Ukrainian nuclear plants?

- Well, as I have said, there should never be any kind of attack on... And this is part of the seven pillars and also the five concrete principles. There should never be an attack on a nuclear power plant or any piece of infrastructure that affects the safety components of the plant.

So we hope this will not happen. This is something I should say.

I discussed a few days ago with Mr. Galushchenko. And in my next visit to Kyiv this summer, I'm planning to return to Kyiv and also to Zaporizhzhia, we decided to discuss in more detail how the Agency could support in this area.

- Could you give us more details about this visit?

- It's something that I should discuss first with the minister.

- And could you provide an update on the Agency's technical discussion with the Russian Federation on restarting ZNPP?

- Indeed. I think this is a very important point, since the Russian Federation does not intend to decommission the plant. For as long as they are controlling it, they have indicated that they are not planning to decommission it.

So we have raised this point. We have discussed this point. And in my last round of technical talks in Kaliningrad, there was a clear understanding in the sense that there would not be a restart or an immediate restart.

And the IAEA also indicated the necessity to perform a systematic safety evaluation of the whole site and the plant and the reactors before considering even a restart.

- Ukraine also plans to build new reactors at the Khmelnytskyi NPP, what is the IAEA's position on this?

- We will be supporting that. It's again something I discussed with Minister Galushchenko and with the CEO of Energoatom, Mr. Kotin. We are in touch in terms of how the Agency can also support these plans. We think they are very timely plans. So, continue moving ahead, irrespectively of what may happen in Zaporizhzhia.

Vasyl Korotkyi, Vienna

Photos by author

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