In an interview with Kathimerini, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, states that Europe does not have the luxury of turning its back on nuclear energy if it wants to achieve its targets on tackling climate change.
With this in mind, he states that it is a clean form of energy, which, while capital intensive at the beginning, guarantees long-term price stability without volatility. He also stresses that the life cycle of the average nuclear power plant can be upward of 80 years.
The head of the IAEA, in his first interview by a Greek press outlet, said that the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima are the exceptions that prove the rule, that nuclear is “the safest method of energy production, based on its statistical history,” stating that those earlier disasters were not the result of nuclear technology but can instead be blamed on human error.
“There are nuclear power plants in earthquake-prone areas,” he says in response to a question about the possibility of building such a facility in Greece, stressing that in any case, “there are specific standard procedures and studies that need to be carried out before anything can be done.”
Referring to the Iranian nuclear program, Grossi stated that the goal is to revive the 2015 deal, underscoring that there is currently a “smooth, tactical cooperation with the Iranian authorities” to this end. As for North Korea, which is “expanding its nuclear program and which is the only one not under international supervision,” he expressed hope that there will be a political solution for disengagement. It should be noted that North Korea expelled IAEA monitors in 2009.
How environmentally friendly is the production of nuclear energy and to what extent, in your opinion, could it be part of a solution to confront climate change?
Nuclear energy can really be part of the solution. However, there must be more than one solution. Nuclear energy can already be counted among the choices available for Europe, for example, where it represents approximately 50% of clean energy production. We find nuclear energy in about half the countries of the European Union. As for its environmental impact, the scientific data is available to all and proves that it truly is environmentally friendly. It is certainly no less environmentally friendly than other forms of energy.
How efficient and how expensive is the production of nuclear energy, in comparison with renewable energy?
There are many factors that determine the cost of producing energy in general. The production of nuclear energy is capital intensive at the beginning, but later it has long-term stable costs. It also does not display the volatility we see with other methods of producing energy, for example natural gas. It should be noted that a nuclear power plant has a life cycle of approximately 60 years, which can essentially be extended to 80 years or more with the necessary infrastructure interventions. As a result, nuclear energy production is rather cheap. It is certainly very competitive.
Nuclear energy critics touch upon the issue of safety. Its supporters point to technological developments and the experience gained from past disasters as adequate safeguards. How safe is the production of nuclear energy in 2022?
Safety is a constantly developing process. Nuclear energy is safe. Of course there are accidents. However, one must look at the statistical history, which proves that nuclear energy is one of the safest methods of producing energy. It is a fully regulated sector, with constant monitoring and oversight. It is natural that Chernobyl and Fukushima have left a mark on our collective memory. However, looking at the big picture, the level of safety is the highest possible. Past disasters were the result of human error, not the technology itself. Citizens should feel comfortable with nuclear energy.
Energy prices in Europe have soared and the continent is looking for ways to reduce its dependency on natural gas. With this in mind, France is reinforcing its nuclear energy program, but Germany is moving to shut down all of its nuclear power plants. What do you think about the ongoing conversations within the European Union and the ultimate prospects for the growth of nuclear energy in Europe?
‘Looking at the big picture, the level of safety is the highest possible. Past disasters were the result of human error, not the technology itself. Citizens should feel comfortable with nuclear energy’
It is truly fascinating to see these completely different approaches within Europe. However, it is ultimately the democracies that set goals. However, it will be difficult for Europe to respond to the challenges of climate change without including nuclear energy production as part of its energy approach. And it is certainly a contradiction to pursue certain climate goals on the one hand while not utilizing nuclear energy on the other.
How many nuclear power plants are there in the world today and how many of those are in Europe?
Overall, there are 439 in the world and more than 100 are in Europe. There are also more to come. As we speak, 50 more are being built. We have relevant programs in countries like France, which is expanding its units, Britain, Poland, Estonia, China, India, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa.
What are the necessary qualities for a country to develop nuclear energy effectively and safely? Is Greece a country that meets these standards?
They need to have basic infrastructure with industrial and technological capabilities and these need to be secure. The ΙΑΕΑ helps countries that are interested in reaching the required standards. Greece is a technologically and scientifically evolved country and it can develop nuclear technology if that is what it wants. But there seems to be a very intense debate about the issue of nuclear power in Greece, with critics pointing to the country’s seismic profile. This, however, is a challenge that has been addressed already and we have nuclear power-producing plants in earthquake-prone areas. Of course, there are specific standard procedures and studies that need to be carried out before anything can be done.
We’re just a month away from the 10-year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. What is the situation there today and what have we learned from that incident?
The facility’s reaction to the events that March was what it needed to be and was prompt. However, the tsunami complicated matters. We have done a lot of work since then: improvements, studies, technical evaluations, stress tests. There’s a lot of activity and it continues to this day. That particular accident was big; it had a very negative impact and dealt a serious blow to the nuclear energy sector, but it also brought a new and strong commitment to the matter of safety.
The ΙΑΕΑ is contributing to efforts by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to develop nuclear energy capabilities. Can you tell us a bit about that?
It may come as a surprise that a Middle Eastern country with oil deposits should be interested in producing nuclear energy. However, Saudi Arabia is a country that wants to develop its economy further and maximize its export capabilities, just as it needs to start decarbonizing production. It will, of course, take a lot of painstaking analysis before it can embark on developing nuclear power production plants. It’ll take some time.
The international community has been skeptical about the suitability of Iran’s nuclear program for some time now. How is cooperation between the IAEA and Iran progressing, and what is your assessment of its nuclear program so far?
Iran’s nuclear program is a long story with many different chapters and plot twists. Talks are constant and ongoing. Right now, we have a smooth, tactical cooperation with the Iranian authorities and are working towards reviving the 2015 agreement, which foresaw enhanced IAEA surveillance and restricted nuclear activity from Iran – its uranium enrichment has reached 60%, which is not too far from 90%, of weapons-grade purity. It is an ongoing process and we hope that the necessary steps will be taken soon to bolster surveillance.
In which geographical regions would you say that there’s a nuclear risk to international security? We’re seeing movement in North Korea, for example. And what would be needed to prevent the use of nuclear force for aggressive purposes?
You are right to mention North Korea, which is expanding its nuclear program and which is the only one not under international supervision, as the IAEA has been barred from there since 2009. We hope for some sort of political resolution to the issue. More generally, the IAEA is engaged across the globe, safeguarding secure conditions. Our work never stops.