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what is the power of the IAEA in the face of nuclear risk?

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By seizing the Zaporijjia site on the night of Thursday March 3 to Friday March 4, Russia became the first country to take possession of an enemy civilian nuclear installation. The war in Ukraine is the first conflict to take place in a nuclear state. Ukraine has fifteen reactors in four power plants. That of Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, in 1986, fell into the hands of Russian troops last week.

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Faced with this unprecedented situation, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is increasing its public speaking and warning about the risk of a serious nuclear accident. “You have to understand that we are facing an unprecedented situation. Usually, in diplomacy, it is necessary to look into the past to find solutions. Here, we evolve in troubled waters”, said general manager Rafael Mariano Grossi.

Real power?

The IAEA Board of Governors thus adopted a resolution on Thursday 3 March calling on Russia to “immediately cease actions against Ukrainian nuclear sites”. The following day, during an emergency press conference in Vienna, Rafael Mariano Grossi said he was ready to go to Ukraine ” as soon as possible “ in order to negotiate a solution to guarantee the safety of the sites endangered by the war, in particular in Chernobyl.

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Latest statement, Sunday March 6, the UN nuclear policeman expressed his “deep concern” following information concerning the interruption of communications with the Zaporijjia power plant and recalled the seven pillars essential to nuclear safety. Among them, guaranteeing the maintenance of the physical integrity of the facilities, but also ensuring that the staff who work there are not under stress.

The IAEA was created in 1957 within the United Nations. “After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was an awareness among all politicians and countries that nuclear police were needed at the international level”, explains Emmanuelle Galichet, teacher-researcher at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts and specialist in nuclear physics. The main objective of the IAEA is therefore to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to limit its military implications.

Little concrete influence

But what is the real impact of this organization? Like the UN, the IAEA has no coercive power, which does not prevent it from having significant influence in times of war. “The IAEA is right to do everything in its power to try to calm things down, but if Russia wants to take the plants from Ukraine, there is nothing they can do about it,” analyzes Emmanuelle Galichet.

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Although the IAEA can only give recommendations, its function “is really important to show the Russians that the world is aware of the gravity, of the stakes of this war, and that nuclear power plants are among the works and installations that we have no right to touch”explains the teacher-researcher, invoking the Geneva Convention of 1949.

“The IAEA will have an essential role in the transparency of information and diplomacy to check that everything is in order in the operation of the reactors. It’s unprecedented,” adds Nicolas Goldberg, energy expert at Colombus Consulting.

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