Pope Francis receives IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, in an audience at the Vatican Pope Francis receives IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, in an audience at the Vatican  (VATICAN MEDIA Divisione Foto)

IAEA Director: Committing to a world without nuclear weapons

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, speaks with Vatican Media following his audience with Pope Francis.

By Valerio Palombaro

Pope Francis on Thursday received the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, on a visit to the Vatican. During his visit, Grossi also held talks with the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin; and the Secretary for Relations with States and International Organisations, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher.

In this interview with Vatican Media, Grossi stressed the need to find multilateral solutions to international crises and to avoid nuclear escalation. In particular, he dwelt on the delicate situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, announcing that he will soon visit Ukraine for the fifth time since the conflict began.

Interview with IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi

Pope Francis has strongly denounced the seriousness of the nuclear threat that hangs over humanity today. What are your feelings about this threat?

I met Pope Francis because his voice, his message on these threats at this difficult time - with a complex international agenda - seems indispensable to me. The work of the IAEA has become urgent: it is a work not only dedicated to the issue of Ukraine. There is also Iran and North Korea. Right now, it is clear that securing the nuclear facilities in Ukraine has become urgent, indispensable. Of course, as for the current situation, it is always precarious, always fragile: the bombing around and sometimes on the Zaporizhzhia plant continues. After my visit last September, I was able to establish a continuous presence of the Agency in Zaporizhzhia: right now my commitment is to reach a political agreement between Moscow and Kyiv, to ensure a nuclear protection and safety zone around the plant.

The Pope has repeatedly expressed support for a multilateral approach in major international crises: how important is this support from the Holy See?

It is fundamental! The support of the Holy See is fundamental because it emphasizes the importance in terms of peace — with a universal voice as the voice of the Holy Father is — and in particular in this conflict in Ukraine, which is a conflict in Europe but is also a conflict that is involving Christians around the world. Listening to the voice of the Holy Father is indispensable: that is why the Director General of the Agency — not only because he is Catholic — finds himself in this spiritual guidance of the Holy Father, but also because of the real strength in the world of this voice at this time of war.

The audience of the Pope with the Director General of the IAEA
The audience of the Pope with the Director General of the IAEA

You mentioned the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and the possibility of this safety zone. Among other things, you visited Ukraine. What are the expectations regarding this possibility of creating a safety zone?

Obviously, it is not an easy negotiation because it is an issue that involves technical and also political and military aspects. As I said yesterday, here in Rome: the negotiating table has become bigger. I don't just talk to diplomats, to political leaders, but also to the military: generals, colonels, people who have military objectives in an active combat zone. And I also have to make this clear to the international community, because for the military forces of two enemy countries — right now — this zone is a zone of intense military activity. My challenge is to get to a point where there is a “sanctuary-ization” — with a neologism, so to speak — of the plant that is seen not as a problem but as a solution to any more serious consequences: in fact, it is clear that a nuclear accident would have consequences not limited to one of the two warring states, but to a greater geographical area and perhaps to the whole of Europe. And for this there is the insistence of the Agency and myself. So, right now there is a lot of talk about territorial, perimeter aspects, which are the concerns of the militaries of the two sides. I have made progress. Next week I will be in Ukraine again, the fifth time since the beginning of the conflict, to continue this round of negotiations. After that it is not confirmed but I think it is possible to go to Russia as well.

The Pope, speaking a few days ago to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, expressed concern about the stalemate regarding the Iranian nuclear agreement. Is there any chance of progress on this?

The Pope is right: there is an impasse, the negotiations have broken down, there are many meetings and exchanges and that is why the Agency — and I personally — do not want to leave this political vacuum around such a volatile and dangerous issue. There are two parallel paths: that of the overall agreement, the so-called JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action); and also the bilateral negotiation between the Agency and Iran. We have not been able to make progress. Iran, at the same time, is making progress: progress in the process of uranium enrichment, [and] in the development and construction of more and more advanced centrifuges. This is really worrying because, of course, these are steps towards proliferation, while we have to avoid it. I hope I can go to Tehran. I always say that the Agency is a place of agreement, a space, a platform for mutual understanding. So I am ready to travel and start again, if possible, as soon as possible.

The exchange of gifts during the audience
The exchange of gifts during the audience

Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced the immorality not only of the use of nuclear weapons, but also of their possession. What can the international agency you lead do to promote the exclusively peaceful use of nuclear power?

The exclusively peaceful use of nuclear power is important, especially at this time when another crisis, that of climate change, has hit humanity. It is clear that there is —I will not say a rediscovery, but a much more intense focus on the ability of nuclear energy to provide a clean, carbon-free solution for the global economy. You can see it in Eastern Europe, you can see it in China, you can see it in emerging South Asia, just about everywhere you can see this. At the same time, as you rightly say, the problem of possession of nuclear weapons is always there. Of course we have to — and I as director of the Agency have to — recognise that this is a gradual process and that now the obligation of the moment is to prevent more and more countries from seeking nuclear weapons, especially in an international context of tension. Countries, many have the idea — and this is an absolutely incorrect idea — to think that perhaps at this time the possibility of national development of nuclear weapons should be reconsidered. That is what the Agency must say ‘No’ to: we already have a difficult international situation and we must not make it more difficult still. If there is one thing that is clear — the Holy Father, the Church have said it — it is that nuclear weapons do not provide security: it is the opposite. It is the opposite! And this must be said. We must have the patience and the ability to convince states, and that is not easy.

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12 January 2023, 17:32