Interview with Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Yukiya Amano, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). UN Photo/Mark Garten

1 May 2015Yukiya Amano, a former Japanese diplomat, has served as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 2009. The Vienna-based UN body was set up in 1957 as the world’s centre for cooperation in the nuclear field. It works with its member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies, as well as to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Amano served as Japan’s representative at the IAEA for several years before his appointment as Director General and gained a great deal of experience in disarmament and non-proliferation diplomacy, as well as nuclear energy issues.

While in New York this week for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the head of the UN nuclear watchdog spoke to the UN News Centre about the Conference and the work of the IAEA to strengthen the Treaty’s three pillars – disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.When I became the Director General, I said that as I come from a country with the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I will stay firm against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The interview has been edited for content and clarity.

News Centre: As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference gets underway, what is the IAEA’s main message at the forum?

Yukiya Amano: The NPT treaty has three pillars and I think it is very important for the NPT that progress would be made in all of the three pillars.

News Centre: Could you tell me a little bit more about those three pillars?

Yukiya Amano: One is nuclear disarmament; another is non-proliferation; and the other is the peaceful use of nuclear technology. These are said to be the three pillars of the NPT.

Excerpts from interview with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. Credit: United Nations

News Centre: What do you see as the major concerns today in the area of proliferation?

Yukiya Amano: In the area of proliferation, one of the important areas of concern is the Iranian nuclear issue. The IAEA is implementing safeguards in Iran and we can say that nuclear materials and facilities under safeguards are for peaceful purposes. But we cannot say that all the nuclear materials and facilities are for peaceful purpose.

There have been very good developments since autumn 2013. The IAEA and Iran agreed on a so-called Framework for Cooperation to resolve issues through cooperation. The six Powers – six countries – and Iran agreed on another agreement for interim purposes and now the six countries and Iran are negotiating to reach agreement on the comprehensive agreement. The IAEA will play an essential role in the implementation of the agreement once agreement is reached.

The IAEA mission team studies a water purification system that removes radioactive elements from water during a February 2015 visit to the Fukushima power plant in Japan that was damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Photo: Susanna Loof/IAEA

News Centre: What do you hope is going to be the outcome of this NPT conference?

Yukiya Amano: It is for the Member States of the NPT to decide but I hope a good agreement will be reached to promote progress on all three pillars of the NPT.

News Centre: Can you give me some examples of how the Agency is assisting countries with the peaceful uses of nuclear technology to promote development?

Yukiya Amano: The IAEA is very active in transferring technology – nuclear technology – for peaceful applications. Nuclear technology is very effective in promoting causes like the protection of health and the environment, controlling water, fighting against cancer, and some applications for industry and agriculture. The IAEA is contributing to attainment of the Millennium Development Goals and, upon agreement, to the post-2015 development agenda.

News Centre: Can I ask you a little bit more about how the IAEA will be involved in the post-2015 development agenda?

Yukiya Amano: Let me give you some specific examples. In the field of agriculture, Isotopic technology is very helpful to understand the behaviour of our water. Most of the water is just wasted in irrigation. By understanding the behaviour of the water, we can recommend how to use water in an effective way so water is applied to the point where it is most needed. This is called ‘Drip Irrigation.’ By using this technology of Drip Irrigation in Kenya, we have succeeded in increasing the production of tomatoes by three times, while, at the same time, reducing the amount of water used by half. In Tanzania, Drip Irrigation helped to increase the harvest of tea by four times.

After a four-year eradication programme that included nuclear techniques, the Niayes region of Senegal is now almost free of the tsetse fly, which used to decimate livestock. Seen above is the deployment of a tsetse trap to monitor the progress of the eradication campaign. Photo: M. Vreysen/Joint FAO/IAEA Division

In Viet Nam, another technology called ‘Plant Mutation’ helped to develop a new variety of rice. This new variety produced more crops – but that’s not all. This new variety is more resistant to salty soil. Salty soil is quite a widespread problem because of climate change.

News Centre: You mentioned some of the applications of nuclear technology that people might not expect or associate with the IAEA. Another one is the fight against Ebola. Can you tell me how the IAEA has been involved in that?

Yukiya Amano: Yes. These activities are not well known but in the recent outbreak of Ebola, the IAEA provided assistance. We provided kits to diagnose Ebola virus disease. The advantage is that by using our technology, they can diagnose in four hours instead of four days. That difference between four hours and four days makes a huge difference to saving lives of patients and preventing the spread of the disease.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano (left) tours the Steve Biko Memorial Hospital during his official visit to South Africa on 19 March 2015. Photo: Conleth Brady/IAEA

News Centre: Are there any other high priority issues with which the IAEA is dealing?

Yukiya Amano: Yes. One of the high priority issues of the IAEA in the peaceful use of nuclear technology is the fight against cancer, or cancer control in developing countries. Cancer is becoming more and more important an issue in many developing countries. Death by cancer globally is more than death by tuberculosis, HIV and malaria combined. Two-thirds of deaths by cancer [are] in developing countries. Many developing countries do not have sufficient equipment for diagnosis. When people come to the screening, it is too late and doctors cannot give life-saving treatment. The IAEA has expertise in nuclear medicine and radiotherapy. We work with the World Health Organization (WHO) to assist developing countries to have better control of cancer. This is very important work by the IAEA and it’s a pity that cancer in developing countries is not considered as [part of] a global health agenda.

News Centre: Can you tell me what ‘Atoms for Peace’ means to you?

Yukiya Amano: ‘Atoms for Peace’ were the words used in the famous statement by (United States) President (Dwight D.) Eisenhower. But if we look at the activities of the IAEA in the 21st century, this can by better summarized as – the IAEA uses atoms for peace and development. [Development] is a very important area. The IAEA is a unique international organisation that has some laboratories. We have technology and we transfer the technology through our technical cooperation. We can contribute to improving the lives of ordinary people and that is fascinating for me.

How the atom benefits life. Credit: IAEAvideo

News Centre: I’m interested in finding out how you developed your personal interest in nuclear science. Where did that stem from?

Yukiya Amano: When I was young, I wanted to study biochemistry and I did. But later I found it was too difficult for me and I changed my mind. I studied law and became a diplomat. I was a Japanese diplomat, but in 2009 I joined the IAEA as the Director General. And now I have the opportunity to make that technology available for the people. And I would like to take this opportunity, this privilege, to contribute to the welfare of the people.

News Centre: Growing up in Japan, did the country’s nuclear history have any bearing on your interest?

Yukiya Amano: When I became the Director General, I said that as I come from a country with the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I will stay firm against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The IAEA has the very important objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

But we need to be very fair and factual, so I am requesting all countries to fully implement the agreement between them and the IAEA, which are called the Safeguard Agreements.

News Centre: It’s five years now since you took on your role as Director General and I’m interested in where you see the Agency making its biggest contribution in the future with regard to security and development?

Yukiya Amano: We can do a lot to contribute to development by using nuclear techniques. And also we are very active in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. In using nuclear technology, it is very important to ensure safety. Whether it is used for electricity generation purposes or to fight against cancer, when we use nuclear material, we should pay the utmost attention to ensure safety.

Another very important area is the fight against nuclear terrorism. Nuclear terrorism is a real issue. The IAEA is functioning as a global platform to strengthen nuclear security efforts. We can train people; we can provide equipment; we also maintain a database. This is another area where we can contribute.

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