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HomeNuclearMIT Rose Lecture: The IAEA at the Crossroads of History

MIT Rose Lecture: The IAEA at the Crossroads of History

It’s a pleasure to be with you today. Thank you, Professor (Anne) White, for the kind invitation, and Professor (Benoit) Forget, for your introduction. I’m honoured to give this year’s David J. Rose lecture and to have among my distinguished audience, members of Professor Rose’s family. Thank you, Reverend (Renate) Rose, for your inspiring words about your late husband.

Many people think international collaboration in fusion started in 1985 when General Secretary Gorbachev and President Reagan raised the idea at the Geneva Summit.

But that public proposal was long in the making and a key catalyst was this letter in my hand.

On August 4, 1977, an MIT professor named David J. Rose sent this letter to the IAEA’s second Director General, Sigvard Eklund. The letter is written in Rose’s characteristically logical and down-to-earth manner laying out I. The Problem and II. The Resolution. Rose describes his proposal as “modest”. It is anything but! In his correspondence, he urges Eklund to help create a world coordinated programme in controlled fusion research. As the umbrella organization, Rose suggests the IAEA for its global reach and because it already had the most influential scientists gathered as members of its International Fusion Research Council.

He even opines about which country could host the world’s fusion centre. In a footnote he mentions Iceland because of its relative equidistance between the major fusion players, the US, Europe, Japan and the USSR.    

As we know, Iceland didn’t end up becoming the centre of international fusion. But Rose’s proposal came at just the right time. It supported the Agency’s like-minded scientists and influential Council members in making it happen.

I thought I would begin with this story because it shows that the cooperation between MIT and the IAEA goes back a long way and that together we can advance science and change the world. I will come back to our current and future collaboration in energy. But first, I would like to offer the broader international context of nuclear energy, peace and development through the eyes of the IAEA.

Seventy years ago, at the dawn of the nuclear arms race, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his now-famous “Atoms for Peace” speech. He urged the international community gathered at the United Nations in New York to “find a way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death but consecrated to his life.” To that end, Eisenhower proposed the establishment of an atomic energy agency. This laid the foundation stone for what would become the International Atomic Energy Agency.

When the Agency was established in 1957, the scars of the second world war were still visible in the streets of its host city of Vienna and the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh.

Leaders worried that soon dozens of countries would get the bomb. This did not come to pass thanks to a global non-proliferation regime that still serves us today. At its core is the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It rests on a grand bargain: countries with nuclear weapons – the so-called nuclear weapon states – agree to work towards reducing their arsenals while the non-nuclear weapon states promise not to acquire them. And echoing Eisenhower’s words, the NPT urges the peaceful uses of nuclear energy to be enthusiastically promoted across the world for the benefit of everyone.   

The IAEA is where words turn to action, it is the operational instrument that brings the NPT to life. The Agency serves 177 Member States and has a mandate with two equally important sides: 1. to check that non-nuclear weapon states are keeping their promise and 2. to ensure that the peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology are available to all, safely and securely.

That mandate is now more relevant than ever. Today, there is no single use of the atom more important to the survival of humankind and our planet as we know it, than nuclear power.

The world has reached an inflection point. In some ways it feels like we’re in the familiar territory of the 1970s oil shocks. But 2023 is not 1973. Today the scenario is different; the challenges are different; and the possibilities are different.

The moral case for nuclear energy is even stronger. Whereas the oil shocks of the 1970s hit mainly developed countries, today we are battling the first truly global energy crisis. Billions of people in countries on every continent are facing energy insecurity and the threat of political instability.

At the same time, increasingly extreme weather patterns and the UN’s recent stock-take make clear that humanity is losing the race against climate change. Each year 8 million people die because of the poisonous air they breathe. Air pollution in places like Boston has improved, but major cities in developing countries are choking on fumes so thick it’s difficult to see. Climate change and today’s energy price shocks are putting at risk decades of economic and societal gains made by developing countries. These countries are home to 8 out of every 10 people on the planet, many of whom face losing their homes and livelihoods, and being displaced.   

The challenge is clear and low-carbon nuclear power is now seen as part of its solution by an increasing number of people. We are no longer a bubble of scientists and experts who believe in nuclear. Opinion polls around the world are showing an increasing public acceptance of nuclear, both as a way to improve energy security and to meet climate goals. It’s getting harder to be an environmentalist who is against nuclear.  For a long time many people saw it as a paradox, but it’s not!

In every country that has introduced nuclear power there are communities that have felt its economic and social benefits.  A few weeks ago, I was in Sweden, together with people who still remember protests against nuclear waste transport in the early 1980s. Today, the public acceptance of the encapsulation plant at Oskarshamn and the high-level waste repository at Östhammar are above 85%.

Sweden’s nuclear waste projects will bring investment of 19 billion Kroner – about US $1.7bn – and create 1,500 jobs. They have been fully financed through the money nuclear power companies have been paying into the fund for decades.

Good planning, engineering, stakeholder engagement and the political will to get it done show that there is an answer to the important question of nuclear waste. In Finland, where I had the chance to travel down into the repository, Onkalo is built and expected to receive its final license next year. France is on its way too. These are gamechangers that are happening now.

A lot has been made of Germany closing its last nuclear power plants this year. But Europe still gets 50% of its low-carbon electricity from nuclear energy. France and Sweden show that it’s possible to decarbonize an entire national electricity grid by incorporating nuclear, hydro, solar and wind. Several countries across Europe are either expanding their nuclear power programmes or considering adding nuclear to their energy mix.

Even Green Party politics are changing: Finland’s Green Party has embraced nuclear. I don’t think we could have imagined a pro-nuclear Green Party five years ago, let alone in the 1970s and 80s.

When I became the IAEA’s Director General four years ago, I decided that one of my first official trips should be to the annual UN climate change conference, COP. Some colleagues counselled against it, warning that I risked embarrassment at what had long been seen as a renewables-only event. I went anyway. In the past 4 years, nuclear has gained a seat at the COP table and across the world at tables around which energy policy and climate policy are discussed.

There is a lot of wind in the sails of nuclear. Governments from the Americas to Asia have made available financial support and come up with new financing mechanisms that help overcome the upfront costs and risks of building a big nuclear power plant. The EU Taxonomy includes nuclear among industries designated as sustainable and therefore eligible for favorable financing and extra public and private investments. Private money is getting involved, especially in SMRs and fusion. It’s becoming increasingly clear that nuclear not only offers a low carbon source of energy but is also well placed to produce the large quantities of hydrogen it will take to decarbonize other parts of the economy.

The case for nuclear has changed, the acceptance of nuclear has changed, and so has nuclear power itself. Today’s nuclear field is not the same as the nuclear industry 50 years ago.

The steep rise in the number of nuclear power plants and countries becoming operators in the 1970s and 80s means we now have decades of experience in construction, operation, regulation, safety, security and safeguards. Today, more than 400 operational reactors are spread across 31 countries. 57 reactors are being built in 17 countries and the biggest expansion programme is happening in China, a country that connected its first reactor to the grid in 1991.  

In some countries, the lives of nuclear power plants are being extended. Meanwhile, numerous countries without nuclear power, including in Africa, are either planning or thinking about adding it to the mix. The IAEA supports them in their decision process and in building the foundational institutions nuclear energy requires.

Barakah is one of the world’s newest nuclear power plants, and it was built on ground rich in oil and natural gas. It’s the first nuclear power plant for the UAE and it’s the first overseas build for Korea Electric Power Corporation.

Today’s nuclear industry has advanced along all points on the fuel cycle.  For example, we know how to decommission nuclear plants in cost effective ways. In France, university buildings inhabit spaces where nuclear facilities once stood and in other countries past nuclear sites are being re-used for other industrial processes. All across the world decommissioning is being considered at the start of the process, decades before it will happen.  

In safety we have incorporated lessons from the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. With the IAEA facilitating cross-border collaboration, we have built a robust international network that supports a safety and security-first culture, underpinned by international conventions, IAEA Safety Standards and Security Guidance, and international peer reviews.

Designs and experiments for safer and more efficient reactors have been around since before the 1970s. In many advanced countries investment and research have dwindled in the past decades. But Russia and China forged ahead. Russia operates two fast reactors and in 2021 China brought online the first of its two High Temperature Gas Cooled pebble-bed reactors.

These two new Chinese reactors not only have the advantage of not needing an ample water source, they are also the world’s first modern land-based small modular reactors. The very first modern SMRs were built on a barge in Russia and provide electricity and district heating to communities in the far east of the county.  

There are more than 80 Small Modular Reactor designs around the world, with promising projects from Argentina to South Korea. For countries looking to operate SMRs, these reactors will offer the chance of a more gradual and affordable way to scale up nuclear power. This opens a new vista for developing countries. The interest from energy ministers is notable and the IAEA is where they come for information.

The timely deployment of SMRs is not only a matter of engineering. It also has much to do with the regulatory and industrial process.  For the past year, the IAEA has been bringing together regulators and industry stakeholders. In separate groups they are working towards better harmonization of regulations and standardization of designs.  

There are other hurdles to the deployment of nuclear reactors. In some countries, nuclear has been a dead-end career choice for several generations, leaving a hole in the talent pipeline for everything from physicists to welders. Women are still underrepresented in the nuclear field, making up scarcely a fifth of the US nuclear engineering and science workforce. At the IAEA, we have a goal of gender parity by 2025. Meanwhile, our Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme has already helped hundreds of women afford a Master’s degree in a nuclear subject, while our Lise Meitner Programme is offering women early-career opportunities through professional visits.

In the construction of large nuclear power plants, the US, USSR, Sweden and France demonstrated the benefits of repetition and standardization in the 1970s and 80s; Japan and Korea into the 2000s; and China and Russia still today. In several countries, particularly in the west, first-of-a-kind construction projects or new builds after a long hiatus have suffered ballooning costs and lengthy time-delays because lessons and skills are being relearned. 

A reputation for cost overruns and deadlines missed; a dearth of talent; and fragile supply chains are challenges that need to be overcome.

But governments must act too. A legitimate question being asked today is whether nuclear power will ever be able to compete in markets that do not properly value its full contribution to the grid system and its low-carbon benefits. When one looks at the current picture of investment, the answer to that question is no.

After the oil shocks of the 1970s, the peak years for nuclear energy capacity additions were 1984 and 1985. Today, we are adding a quarter of the annual nuclear capacity added in the mid-1980s and half the annual average analysts say is needed to double current capacity so that we reach our climate goals by 2050. Most of today’s investment is happening outside the market economy.

The world has what it takes to get to net zero. Nuclear needs to be part of the solution. Whether we get there, depends on political will; the nuclear industry’s ability to deliver on its promises; and whether there is another major accident.

This is one of the reasons the IAEA is in Ukraine. We are doing everything possible to reduce the chance that the war causes a nuclear accident.

First and foremost, we are there to avoid an accident bringing even more misery to people who are already suffering so much. That is why I have crossed the frontlines of the war, sometimes under fire, to ensure we get our teams to Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant.

But nuclear accidents can stall investment in nuclear power – our safest energy source save for solar. The sorry fact is that fear of nuclear has killed far more people and caused far more environmental harm, than nuclear accidents. That is why transparency is so important.

In Fukushima, the IAEA is there to make sure that the ALPS-treated water from the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station does no harm to people or the environment. Our monitoring of the discharge over the coming decades offers the facts and science behind a process that has raised concerns in Japan and the region.

While some of our scientists are sampling seawater off the coast of Fukushima, others are working on peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology that go beyond nuclear energy.  I’d like to talk briefly about some less well-known ways nuclear science and technology directly help developing countries make progress towards half the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and indirectly towards all of them.

Let me give you 5 brief examples:

  1. The IAEA is the main international organization widening the global access to radiotherapy. For more than 60 years we have been helping countries fight cancer by providing know-how, equipment, and training. Often we work closely together with the World Health Organization. In Africa, seven out of every ten people have no access to life-saving radiotherapy. In Tanzania’s northern city of Mwanza patients regularly travelled more than 1,000km for treatment. That changed when Tanzania turned to the IAEA for assistance in setting up radiotherapy services, and to provide ongoing training for key staff. It is just one example of how we are helping to save lives and support the robust medical systems that underpin social and economic development.
  2. Agriculture and water are two big reasons Member States join the IAEA. Together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), we help farmers around the world make better use of their soil and water. This improves crop reliability and yields while reducing the need for fertilizers and irrigation. In our laboratories just outside Vienna, scientists are using gamma rays to speed up plant mutation. They are breeding hardier crops that can withstand increasingly difficult climactic conditions in many countries. Drought threatens many types of crops. To address this challenge, new varieties of rice have been developed in Bangladesh. In Zambia and Zimbabwe farmers are benefitting from new variants of cowpea and in Sudan new types of groundnut are improving harvests. For Pakistan, cotton textiles are valuable exports. New variants of cotton now make up 40% of production, many of them are better at tolerating heat. These are just a few examples of the more than 3,000 new varieties of plants that have been developed using nuclear science and applications.
  3. The ocean is the planet’s greatest natural resource and carbon sink. Three billion people rely on it for their livelihoods. In our Marine Environment laboratories in Monaco, scientists are using isotopic tracing to study the impact of microplastic pollution from the ocean ecosystem all the way to the seafood on our plates.
  4. Water scarcity affects billions of people. We train experts from across the world to use isotopic techniques to study the water in aquifers so they can better manage their most precious resource. Similar nuclear techniques are being used to study glaciers from the Antarctic to Tajikistan to understand how climate change is destroying them.
  5. When it comes to dealing with zoonotic diseases, nuclear techniques offer one of the most accurate ways to detect viruses. In response to COVID-19, the IAEA sent RT-PCR equipment, kits and know-how to more than 300 laboratories and institutions around the world. Since then, we have created a network of nearly 130 national veterinary laboratories to make sure they have what it takes to prevent the next outbreak from becoming a pandemic.

COVID-19 has shown that the future of humanity is inextricably linked. Climate change tells us the same.  

So, in closing, let me come back to energy. If fission plays the long game, fusion takes it to a whole new horizon.

The world is changing, that is made abundantly clear by the heat domes, polar vortex, wildfires, floods, and droughts we are experiencing. But the world will not end in 2030, or 2050, or 2070 just because those are the dates for many climate goals.

I believe fusion will be needed and that future generations will see fusion accelerators power their homes, industries, and transportation; and provide heat and desalination.

Some commentators quip that fusion will always be the energy of the distant future. I don’t agree. My optimism is fueled by meetings like this one and by appreciating how far the field of fusion has already come. 

We may not yet have the full picture. But, for the first time, all the pieces of the puzzle are there: the physics, the policy drivers and the investment.

The IAEA is helping to put the pieces together.

Even before Professor Rose’s letter to Eklund, the IAEA’s Fusion Energy Conference series had established itself as the most important stage on which scientists shared their progress.

The cooperation in fusion between China, Europe, India, Japan, South Korea, Russian, and the United State was born of those relationships.

Projects now span the globe, and the nature of collaboration and funding is evolving. Private sector investment just surpassed $6 billion dollars and public-private collaboration is growing. There are start-ups in 11 countries, with the most here in the US. MIT has notable alumni in the field. This week, I had the opportunity to visit SPARC to learn more about the high temperature superconducting magnets developed by Commonwealth Fusion Systems’. We’ll also be featuring SPARC at the IAEA Fusion Energy Conference in London in a few weeks.

Here on campus, I was interested to see MIT’s research reactor, an important tool for the advancement of science and the shaping of some of the world’s brightest minds.

And I’m thrilled that the IAEA and MIT have agreed that MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) will become an IAEA Collaborating Centre on Artificial Intelligence for Fusion and Plasma Science*. All around the world, Collaboration Centres partner with us on research, development and training, while promoting the practical uses of nuclear science.  This will be the second IAEA Collaboration Centre in the US, the first on AI and the first in fusion.

It is an exciting time to be working together. We were pleased to be able to support PSFC’s proposal to the Department of Energy and to celebrate in Vienna when we heard the good news of its award. I have just come from New York where I signed Practical Arrangements with the International Telecommunications Union with whom I see the IAEA and the PSFC are running a crowdsourcing challenge. 

When I think about all these new forms of collaboration happening today, I imagine Professor Rose would have been delighted. It really is something to hold this letter and to know how much progress has been made since, in fusion, in computing and in global relations. I look forward to our collaboration going forward. But for now, I am most excited to discuss these important matters with you more informally and to answer any of your questions. Thank you.

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