International Atomic Energy Agency Chief “It Is an Undeniable Fact that Nuclear Energy Is Clean Energy”

In an interview, Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, discusses the Iran deal, the aspirations of countries like Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear power, and why he believes the controversial energy source is still green.
Interview Conducted by Dietmar Pieper
IAEA head Rafael Grossi and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Tehran: "In the past two decades, Iran has shown remarkable consistency in its nuclear activity. "

IAEA head Rafael Grossi and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Tehran: "In the past two decades, Iran has shown remarkable consistency in its nuclear activity. "

Foto: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

The use of nuclear power is on the rise in many countries, with China alone building or planning more than 50 new reactors. At the same time, more countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are considering nuclear weapons. Others, including North Korea, are expanding their arsenals. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is responsible for ensuring that countries comply with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and that nuclear power plants remain safe.

Argentine diplomat Rafael Grossi, 59, has been the head of IAEA since December 2019 and monitoring Iran’s nuclear program is likely his most sensitive task. During talks in Tehran last month, Grossi succeeded in clearing the way for IAEA inspections at two facilities that are under suspicion.

In 2015, Tehran committed itself to reducing its nuclear program in return for a relaxation of sanctions and the lifting of an embargo on the supply of conventional weapons. United States President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, but the other parties to the deal are sticking to it.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Grossi, do you think Iran’s leaders would like to obtain a nuclear bomb?

Grossi: I am monitoring exactly what is happening, but as an inspector, I should not speculate about intentions. At the IAEA, we must be extremely thorough, unyielding and also fair. And we must always consider every possibility.

DER SPIEGEL: Your people have discovered that Iran is ramping up uranium enrichment. How long would it take for the country to have enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb?

Grossi: We do not provide those kinds of time estimates. What we are looking for are quantities and levels of enrichment. We have determined that Iran has more enriched uranium today than it did two years ago. On the other hand, the quantities are still much smaller than in 2015, when the Iran deal was agreed to.

DER SPIEGEL: Independent experts used IAEA data to deduce that Iran would only need three and a half months to produce the uranium for a bomb. The United States government has also issued a warning.

Grossi: I respect these analyses, although I do not necessarily agree. We must be watchful, there’s no question about that. It is just as important to see things in perspective: Even if you have the necessary amount of uranium, that does not mean that you can immediately build a nuclear weapon.

DER SPIEGEL: You visited Tehran yourself in August and spoke with President Hassan Rohani and other leading representatives of the country. The regime denies being interested in an atomic bomb. But what other reason could there be for the expansion of the nuclear program?

Grossi: It is very difficult to say what others really want. I limit myself to the following: In the past two decades, Iran has shown remarkable consistency in its nuclear activity.

DER SPIEGEL: Should that be a cause for concern?

Grossi: Of course. The activity did decrease after the signing of the nuclear deal. But it never stopped completely. This is in no way unusual for a country that has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, provided we exercise our control function. The Iranian nuclear program is highly sophisticated, with a nuclear power plant for which there are plans to expand, research laboratories and enrichment facilities. That’s why we have such a vast inspection regime. We carried out more than 400 inspections in Iran last year.

DER SPIEGEL: How many inspectors do you have in the country?

Grossi: That number is confidential. But our teams are always there, 365 days a year.

DER SPIEGEL: As a result of your visit, two older, partly demolished plants that Iran had not reported to the IAEA may be inspected. Tehran has spoken of a "voluntary” concession. Is the country not obliged to do so?

Grossi: That’s political semantics. The obligation exists, but the Iranian leadership acts sensitively if they are forced to do something.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you consider it a personal success that the IAEA inspectors can now do their work there?

Grossi: It's extremely important in any case. Iran had openly questioned our legal authority for inspecting both places. This was a problem that needed to be solved. Otherwise, the next country might come along soon and say: Dear IAEA, you want to check something, but we’re not going to show you.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 40/2020 (September 26, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL: Why do you want to know so much about things that might have happened many years ago?

Grossi: Nuclear material doesn’t have an expiration date like food. Assuming we find evidence of highly enriched uranium, it raises the question: Where has this material gone?

DER SPIEGEL: Few other international agreements have been the subject of as much controversy as the Iran deal. Isn't it already dead?

Grossi: It is very much alive for the countries that are adhering to it. Germany, France, Britain, Russia, China and Iran have made clear that they find the agreement enormously important. There is a dispute because three Western countries claim Iran is violating it. Iran, in turn, is complaining of misconduct on the part of the other side. No one is doing anything - everyone wants us to continue with inspections. It reminds me of the pantomime dances in the Kabuki theater.

DER SPIEGEL: Your own reports state that the Iranians are clearly violating the terms of the deal.

Grossi: It's like a car parked in a no parking zone. I put one ticket on the windshield, then another followed by another. And then the owner says: Keep going, I have the right to park here.

DER SPIEGEL: You say that as if it were a joke, but you could actually complain vociferously. Aren’t you being too soft on the Iranians?

Grossi: We are not a party to the agreement – we only have a mandate as inspectors. It’s up to others to draw the conclusion from our findings.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you feel pressure from the great powers of the world?

Grossi: I feel it every minute of every day. The wind is blowing from all sides. How should I behave when a great power flexes its muscles or makes vague threats? I have thought about this very carefully. I’m not fighting it and I’m not frustrated. The countries are representing their national interests. I can take it.

DER SPIEGEL: North Korea already has nuclear weapons. Does the world simply have to accept it?

Grossi: No, the country has no right to them.

DER SPIEGEL: You continue to monitor North Korea with the help of satellite images, for example. What do you know about it?

Grossi: We know that new production facilities have been built in the past decade. But our inspectors had to leave the country in 2009, so there are gaps in our knowledge.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you see any concrete consequences of the talks between U.S. President Trump and North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un?

Grossi: There have been no further tests with nuclear weapons since then. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has informed me that the political dialogue is continuing. I don’t know the details. But I hope the talks will bear fruit. We are fully prepared to send out our inspectors at any time.

DER SPIEGEL: The Turkish president and the Saudi crown prince have been thinking aloud about the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Are you worried?

Grossi: I don't agree with your characterization. What I know about are political statements – which haven't been encouraging. In concrete terms, we are concerned with the question of whether these countries are fulfilling their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And I do not see anything that suggests a breach of law.

DER SPIEGEL: You are very open to Saudi Arabia’s plans to build a nuclear power plant, which is the prerequisite for possibly producing weapons-grade uranium one day.

Grossi: All countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. If we provide technological support for this, it strengthens our controls and has nothing to do with the development of weapons production.

DER SPIEGEL: You consider nuclear power plants to be welcome support in the fight against climate change. Are you not playing down the high risks?

Grossi: I have already discussed this with innumerable German counterparts. It is an undeniable fact that nuclear energy is clean energy, almost free of CO2 emissions. Today’s nuclear power plants save us two gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year in global electricity generation.

DER SPIEGEL: But only if fossil fuels were really the only alternative to nuclear power. And they are not.

Grossi: I’m not a lobbyist for the nuclear industry, but I cannot look away from the scientific facts. Nuclear power plants play an important role in the energy mix of many countries. As the IAEA, we contribute to ensuring that they are operated in a safe manner.

DER SPIEGEL: Safe final storage facilities for nuclear waste haven’t been found yet, if they even exist at all.

Grossi: I see this as a question of societal acceptance, above all. One day, there will be suitable solutions.

DER SPIEGEL: Was the German decision to phase out nuclear power a mistake?

Grossi: I would never dare to say that. We work very well together with the German authorities. But what the Germans are doing is unique in the world. I wish them well with it.