The IAEA Cannot Both Police Proliferation and Promote Nuclear Power

Photograph Source: Ralf1969 – CC BY-SA 3.0

The UN agency is sounding the alarm about Ukraine’s reactors and Iran’s nuclear intentions, while at the same time promoting the very technology that delivers these risks

On March 21 in Brussels, Belgium, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will host what it is billing as the “First ever Nuclear Energy Summit.” The event follows a pledge made by 22 countries last December during the COP28 climate summit in Dubai to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050. 

The Brussels summit, co-hosted by the IAEA and the Belgian government, and featuring prominent officials from the US Department of Energy, will bring together world leaders and other officials to “highlight the role of nuclear energy in addressing the global challenges to reduce the use of fossil fuels, enhance energy security and boost economic development,” according to the event’s website.

Ignoring for a moment that tripling anything by 2050 will be far too late to address the climate crisis now upon us, the Brussels summit is troubling as it marks a notable ramping up of aggressive nuclear power marketing by the IAEA, an agency of the United Nations that is mandated “to deter the spread of nuclear weapons”.

This goal is inherently thwarted by the promotion of civil nuclear energy, which effectively hands over the keys to the nuclear weapons castle by affording non-nuclear weapons countries the technology, materials, know-how and personnel to develop nuclear weapons. History has already demonstrated this with the nuclear weapons programs of India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, all of which were acquired via the civil nuclear route.

This is precisely the conundrum with Iran, a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that affords non-nuclear weapons countries the “inalienable right” to develop a civil nuclear power program. Iran has long claimed to be doing precisely that and yet the IAEA’s director general, Rafael Grossi, sounded the alarm in late February when he noted that Iran appears to have enriched uranium “well beyond the needs for commercial nuclear use.” This should not be a surprise.

Another contradiction lies in the IAEA’s stated mission to work for “the safe, secure and peaceful application of nuclear science and technology”. To achieve this, the agency eagerly advocates for the global expansion of nuclear power while at the same time worrying about the extreme peril of Ukraine’s 15 civil reactors embroiled in the current Russian war in that country. 

“We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place,” lamented Grossi during a September 2022 UN Security Council briefing, referring to the six Zaporizhzhia reactors in Ukraine, the closest ones to the fighting.

In late February this year Grossi warned again that an “extremely vulnerable off-site power situation continues to pose significant safety and security challenges for this major nuclear facility”, calling the safety and security situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant “precarious”.

And yet, Grossi has also stated: “It’s very simple, the problem in Ukraine and in Russia is they are at war. The problem is not nuclear energy”. But nuclear energy is very much the problem. Wind farms and solar arrays would present no such dangers under similar circumstances.

At COP28, Grossi trumpeted that “global net zero carbon emissions can only be reached by 2050 with swift, sustained and significant investment in nuclear energy”, entirely ignoring the faster, cheaper and safer contribution renewable energy is already making to that end. 

In the same statement Grossi described nuclear power as “resilient and robust” when it is manifestly neither. Nuclear energy’s share of global commercial gross electricity generation hit a four-decade record low in 2022 according to the 2023 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, a downward trend that is unlikely to change.

The IAEA’s triple nuclear energy plan is both a massive over-reach and a reckless and unattainable diversion, given that no new nuclear construction has ever come anywhere close to this pace, even with known and familiar reactor designs. In fact, nuclear power plants have been taking even longer to build in recent years, at even higher cost. 

The proposed “new” smaller reactors — not new at all and rejected for decades as too uneconomical — are designs on paper only that have zero chance of delivery in time and in enough numbers to make any impact on the climate crisis.

The IAEA cannot be both nuclear policeman and promoter. In pushing nuclear power across the globe, the IAEA is complicit in a climate crime that wastes time and money on the needless expansion of expensive, slow and dangerous nuclear power. This takes away vital resources from renewable energy and energy efficiency that would rapidly, safely and affordably address the climate crisis, none of which nuclear power can achieve.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.