“How obscene it would be for a country…that still has poverty, that still has all these problems, to spend billions in nuclear weapons. What for?”

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has specialized in non-proliferation and disarmament issues for more than 35 years – ever since he began his career as a diplomat in his native Argentina, when the country's then military dictatorship announced that it had mastered uranium enrichment.

For many, nuclear is a feared technology. But Rafael argues that it’s also a beneficial one. In his conversation with podcast host Melissa Fleming, he explains how advances in nuclear technology have led to pioneering medical treatments and smarter agriculture. He cites the launch of Rays of Hope, a new initiative to harness nuclear technology to scale cancer treatment for women across Africa.

Rafael also shares how meeting atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki drives his work at the helm of the IAEA, known as the world’s ‘nuclear watchdog.’



Transcript and multimedia



Melissa Fleming 0:06


From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming, and this is Awake At Night. Today, my guest is Rafael Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA is based here in Vienna and this is certainly a long way from Argentina where you grew up. So what sparked your interest in nuclear matters?


Rafael Grossi 0:39


Well, first of all, it's great to see you again, Melissa, I think you... I consider you somehow an IAEA person as well because...


Melissa Fleming 0:47


Well, I did work for the IAEA for seven years as a spokesperson.


Rafael Grossi 0:50


You did, you did so so you know, the agency but anyway, as far as my interest in nuclear goes, it goes way back then, in the early 1980s and it has to do not only with my personal life, which is obvious but also with the life of my country of origin, Argentina, because in 1983 when Argentina was having elections and returning to democracy, after long years of a terrible military dictatorship, two months before the election, the Argentine military government announced that it had mastered uranium enrichment.


Melissa Fleming 1:36


What was the worry about they didn't quite have a bomb but why worry about uranium enrichment? What was worrying about this?


Rafael Grossi 1:43


The worrisome thing is that for nuclear weapons to go bang, you need either uranium, enriched uranium, or plutonium. With either of the two. So when you start enriching uranium, you must have a good reason to do that. Or if you don't have to explain. Couple with that or to that was the fact that at that time, Argentina had not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So it was a country under the magnifying glass if you want. Normally, when you are part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the one that regulates peaceful uses of the atom if you want through the inspections carried out by the agency, I lead now but Argentina have very little of that.


And this facility where they had mastered this very complicated technology of enriching, uranium, had not been declared to the IAEA, [it] was a secret facility. So the international community know what was being done there, what amounts of uranium was Argentina, enriching, and at what level. And this is also important if you, forgive me if I get a bit technical here, if you go to a high degree of enrichment of an isotope of uranium, above 90, then you have materials that you can use for nuclear weapons.


So this, this explained, the excitement, and the worry and the concern in the international community. That there was a possibility of real proliferation of nuclear weapons, all of a sudden, in South America, that could, of course, trigger Brazil, as a reaction to go in the same direction and who knows what else. So this explains why the mastery of this technology was a cause of such concern.


Melissa Fleming 4:00


Just let me interrupt you. How old were you then?


Rafael Grossi 4:03


I was 22.


Melissa Fleming 4:04


22 and this somehow affected you?


Rafael Grossi 4:07


It affected me in this way, in the sense that we had the elections, [the] civilian government came to power and then it inherited this. The fact that the country had, you know, this capability, the democratically elected or authority didn't know what the nuclear programme actually was, in a secret facility in Patagonia. It had all the elements of a movie.


At that time I was joining the Foreign Service. I wanted to be a diplomat. Of course, I was waiting until the military would go. I didn't want to be a diplomat for dictatorship so when elections came, then I applied, I joined and somebody comes from the ministry to the Diplomatic Academy and says, ‘Well, there's this nuclear affairs department that is being created’ and, of course, nobody wanted to go there. But it immediately fascinated me. And I thought this is a very hot issue for this country, for this democracy. I want to... I want to be part of this. I want to work in this.


I don't want Argentina to have a bomb but I want Argentina to have nuclear energy. So if there is going to be a diplomacy for that, I would like to work in that so that was the spark. I had a very visionary boss, my first boss, who said to me and another, then, young diplomat, ‘If you want to do this, you have to understand nuclear.’ And I said, ‘yeah, of course’ but really understand the technical, the scientific part of it.

So we were sent for six months to all the nuclear facilities in the country, to nuclear reactors, to fuel fabrication plants, to this enrichment facility, to laboratories, to spend six months there. And you can imagine, I don't know who was more surprised if I was working with these people or these engineers, who showed this young diplomat and I was saying ‘I'm just here to learn.’


Grossi in white coat is surrounded by others in white coats as they look at laboratory equipment
Grossi on a tour of the Nuclear Material Laboratory

Melissa Fleming 6:38 


I know it's really hard to learn and understand how nuclear technology works and how the ingredients of coming to a nuclear weapon work as I had to do it myself when I was spokesperson for the IAEA. It's really tough. But you must...I wonder if you had any science background or what kind of brought you into this passion for nuclear? What did you study?


Rafael Grossi 7:06 


Political Science.


Melissa Fleming 7:09


Okay, so you studied but what about your parents, did they have any interest?


Rafael Grossi 7:13


No, my father was, he was a writer, and a field reviewer, and a journalist. So I was, you know, from with my brother, I remember from a very young age in TV studios and radio. I love that. I love to go with him, just sit and see him. His thing was movies and theatre. And my mother was an artist, [a] sculptress. She worked at home. She had her Atelier at home so my life was that I was surrounded by books and art, not science or nuclear science at all.


Melissa Fleming 7:55 


What did they say when you decided that you wanted to go into this field, not art or journalism?


Rafael Grossi 8:02


Well, they were very...they were always, I am eternally grateful for that, having become a multiple father afterwards. They would support whatever I wanted to do. They felt they saw the passion, the seriousness, in what I was doing, and they never tried to influence me in any particular way.


Melissa Fleming 8:25


I wonder though, you grew up under the military dictate, can you describe what life was like for you as a child, but also just the atmosphere?


Rafael Grossi 8:35 


Well, it was very strange, because on the surface, of course, it was a dictatorship so there was no political freedom or anything. But on the surface, there was [an] appearance of calm, while you know, Argentina is the country of the missing people. Argentina, Chile as well, etc so they were disappearing people. And there was something... We knew that something was fundamentally wrong and was not being talked about too much.


I remember a couple of friends of my dad, of course, when you are in arts or culture in general, one would expect people to have political views, which could be progressive, could be conservative as well, but could be progressive and so, at that time, I had no idea of that. But I remember in particular, one day when a good friend of my dad’s came home to hide. And I remember my dad, you know, gave him money and he was… he stayed with us, like for one day and then he left. Luckily, he was not… I think he was kidnapped at some point, but he was not killed and that was my recollection of those years.


But in general, this is why I say it was very ambivalent because I was going to school and, you know, going to football matches on Sundays. So there was the appearance of a relative normalcy but, of course, terrible things were happening at the same time.


Melissa Fleming 10:46 


Did your parents, kind of, answer your questions? Because you must have been curious, for example, when that friend came to hide?


Rafael Grossi 10:54


Yeah, we were aware, it was not like they were saying that nothing happens. They were not very happy with that situation. But what they would tell you is ‘be prudent. Watch out for who you see who you befriend. Be careful.’ So that was in general their… so this is why I would say it was a very, yeah, ambivalent is a good way to describe it. Because I could not say that this was like living under the Nazis or anything. There was like, an appearance of normalcy and at the same time, people were being killed and disappear so… and it all ended in the tragedy of the South Atlantic so it was so incredibly bizarre.


So, so yeah, I mean, those days to go back a little bit to my life were days when I joined the Foreign Service, and I started in this area, were days of tremendous hope. Tremendous hope. Of relief and hope and everything was possible. I still remember those days and going out, you know, attending, you know, rallies and political. I mean, we were, it was exciting just to be out there and, you know, chanting and screaming and participating in political rallies.


It was like, a new life for all of us. A lot of hope, then problems started of a different type, more political and economical, etc but those years were years of our rebirth of the country. My beginning as a diplomat and a diplomat in this area.


Grossi at a Sterile Insect Release Ceremony


Melissa Fleming 13:09 


You're now the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) just in really brief terms, layman's terms, what is the IAEA. What does your job entail?


Rafael Grossi 13:20


So, the IAEA today in simple terms has like two faces, you have the one, the IAEA that is recognised as the nuclear watchdog. The one that you would see and you know, in the first page of sometimes of the newspapers when there is a crisis, in any place where nuclear weapons or the appearance or the possibility of nuclear weapons is discussed. So, this is one thing, we inspect, we are a body of inspectors out there, but then there is this whole other side, that has to do with the nuclear science and the applications of nuclear, that go from nuclear medicine.


We have all been touched ourselves or in our families by cancer so, we all know what radiotherapy is, and this is nuclear medicine, one of the aspects of nuclear medicine. It is also the application of nuclear techniques to improve crops, what is now known as smart agriculture. All of these things are done with nuclear techniques. There is a huge number of activities that the IAEA performs, technical cooperation it gives, for member states so that they can attend to all these areas; sterilise insects so that you prevent sets of flies or malaria or things. This you do with nuclear techniques as well. All of these things that we do for countries that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons, but it's still nuclear science and applications.


Melissa Fleming 15:13 


So on one hand, you know, you have an organisation that is addressing what people in this world fear most and that is probably nuclear annihilation. And then you are delivering nuclear techniques that are helping people in so many dimensions and so it's a feared technology, and yet, it's a beneficial one and I remember when I worked for the IAEA, it was really hard to communicate about all of these beneficial angles because people didn't understand. But I'm going to ask you another question. I'm sure that you've in the course of your being a Director General, the IAEA been to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What did you feel when you are standing there?


Rafael Grossi 16:00 


Well, it's impossible to describe it with words. You're simply out of words. You're simply out of words. I went there and, let me tell you, Melissa, I didn't go there as DG, I went there as a United Nations Disarmament Fellow, which I was as well in 1985, I believe 1986. So I was already a diplomat, a young diplomat. I had completed all this training and I was already working and I applied for the United Nations disarmament fellowship programme, which is a fantastic programme for young diplomats that the UN has. And so very wisely, this programme takes you to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And, of course, that changes your perspectives forever. And you get to see the Hibakusha, the victims and I think nowadays, of course, there are very, very few that survived. But back then, 30 years ago, there were lots of them.


Melissa Fleming 17:13


Do you remember a story that one of them told you?


Rafael Grossi 17:17 


Yes, I remember, we went to a hospital and what impressed me was when I asked, because we're allowed to ask questions and, of course, when I asked… it was a woman and I asked her, ‘Actually, what happened? What really happened?’ And she started crying. She couldn't talk and that was, you know, I'm sorry. You know, and she was staring at me, and I was staring at her. And, you know, I was out of words. What could I… She was trying to say something. She was trying to say something, but couldn't.


And, well, of course, after that, that really changes your perspective. And, of course, it gives you the determination, that something like this cannot really happen, cannot happen. And of course…


Melissa Fleming 18:53


Just let me ask you that because you became visibly very moved, even though she didn't say anything to you. So was it something that was in her eyes? Or just her silence of the whole story?


Rafael Grossi 19:06 


It was as if she was making an effort, you know. She wanted to be polite and she wanted to answer my question but she couldn't. She couldn't. And I was like... I felt horrible. I felt guilty, you know, because I sort of, you know, thought maybe, I mean, they survived this, but of course, you know, in reality, I don't think that that mourning has ever left her so it's you know…


But I think it was something that I had to do. I had to do because you need to be exposed to these things. The risk when you are in high politics is that you lose touch. You lose touch. Everything, you know, you process it through microphones and meeting rooms and resolutions, and places where people talk and then there [is], of course, the risk of losing completely the human dimension is obvious. It's too convenient, by the way.


Melissa Fleming 20:18 


I think also the human dimension is in negotiation, and you are very often in very high profile negotiation. You travel to Iran, you travel to places where the world is fierce, that there's an ongoing or development of a nuclear weapons programme. So how do you prepare for those meetings or how important is it to you to meet people in Iran, Syria, North Korea face to face?


Grossi at a press briefing


Rafael Grossi 20:53 


Yeah. I think one very important thing that I am always very conscious of, is what, and in the case of Iran and in our case as well, what programmes, like the nuclear programme, means for a country and the perspective for a country, for a developing country, is completely different. And if you lose this perspective, you risk not only not understanding your partner which would be nice, and I suppose a good predisposition that you should always have, but you also risk being a bad negotiator. Because you will not understand what kinds of things are important for them and how to see how you can accommodate certain things, within the rules, of course, within the rules.


And I always felt that what I could bring to this position is this perspective that I forged my life coming from where I come from, having lived where I lived and having seen and known that, there could have been a different way, in South America, with nuclear weapons, in Argentina and Brazil. And that was also a big chapter in my life, where we worked to prevent that. And I think that helped me understand better these moments where you cross the line, or you don't cross it and what you should at least try to do to prevent the line from being crossed.


Sometimes you can do it. Sometimes you can't. I mean, you have the case of North Korea, which, unfortunately, we all as an international community failed, in the sense that it was a proliferation case. When you were here with the agency, they were not a nuclear weapons state. And eventually, negotiations failed, and the country crossed the line.


Melissa Fleming 23:27 


It must...you must be under enormous pressure.


Rafael Grossi 23:31 


Yes, you are all the time.


Melissa Fleming 23:34


I mean, expectations that you are here, among many other things, but centrally to prevent any country from crossing that red line into a nuclear weapon department.


Rafael Grossi 23:49 


Yes, yes and this is when you connect with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and you connect with things that may happen and you connect with realities. The realities of these countries, developing countries. How obscene it would be for a country, and I always say this in Argentina when I give lectures, how obscene would [it] have been for a country that still has poverty, that still has all these problems, to spend billions in nuclear weapons.


What for? And I also say it in Brazil, with the problems they also have so it is a tremendously... so and there lies also, I think, a moral and ethical obligation that you have. It's not only the military, and the danger that country X, Y or Z will have nuclear weapons. It’s what that will mean for millions. It will condemn them to remain in this underdeveloped state, almost forever, because when you know what it takes and what it costs to run a nuclear arsenal, then you realise that you are postponing everything else. When you are a small or medium-sized country, that is another good reason to be very strong in nonproliferation.


Melissa Fleming 25:30 


So I'm wondering, then, these days, what is keeping you awake at night?


Rafael Grossi 25:37 


Well, I think more than one thing is to not take the right decision, to instead of, you know, helping others... Because as head of an internal organisation, you bring people together. You provide the platform where they can meet. Not a physical platform, but a political platform, I mean, with a proposal, with an idea, with an alternative that they will not bring to the table. But they will accept if you do.


So it is this moment where you may miss the ball and this is what I want to prevent, I want to be always alert and see the possibility because normally windows of opportunity tend to close abruptly and then the opportunity passes and there are moments where you can do certain things, and then the opportunity is gone. So this is what really keeps me on my toes if you want.


Melissa Fleming 26:54 


I wonder what you tell your children about the work you do. I understand you have eight children?


Rafael Grossi 27:02


Eight children and, of course, we have eight children, eight different personalities. I guess a couple of them don't like nuclear very much and they have their political views and energy views and social views but we have free discussions. But at least you know, what I try to tell them is, you know, look at the facts. Make your decision. Have your opinion.


The big challenge they have, unlike my generation, is that you have at the tip of your fingers, you have all this information and misinformation as well. So with this bombardment of news and fake news, and all of this, you know, tends to, you know, it's a great opportunity, but at the same time can be a source of confusion. So, through this maze of information, how do you see where the truth lies? And that is very difficult for this generation. I think it's a big challenge they have.


Melissa Fleming 28:06


I guess some of them are out of the home now. You don't have eight children sitting at the dinner table?


Rafael Grossi 28:10


I have two at home, one about to leave to go to college and one, my only boy, I have 7 young women and a boy, he's the only one staying at home.


Melissa Fleming 28:24 


So how… I just wonder how you've managed because you really have had quite a career and nd you do have 8 children. How do you manage this work-life balance and take care of yourself?


Rafael Grossi 28:35


Well, you know, of course, I work a lot and I travel. I have to travel, you know, meeting you in person yourself, I mean, the essence of our work is to be out there and to reach out. And this is I have like, you know, a few golden rules come what may. Weekends, I'm at home, I'm with the family and doesn't help too much. But, you know, my wife who is also a nuclear person, works with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) also works a lot. So I'm always home, you know, I don't have any fancy hobbies, you know.


I do lots of sports and reading but basically, I am at home. For me, it's like, you know, it's like going to an exotic place, being home and reading and being just with my family. But it's difficult, you know, the life-work balance, it’s very, very, very difficult and I have to admit that in positions like this, there is no night and day or you know, and it's too invasive it can be very, very invasive. So I suppose they have to put up with me.


Melissa Fleming 29:51


At least your wife has, being also working for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation, she understands.


Rafael Grossi 30:00 


She understands. But for children is not always easy. And unfortunately, you cannot.... I mean, you can say, ‘Yeah, you should stop, you must stop.’ But, you know, sometimes you simply cannot.


Melissa Fleming 30:17


Is there anything that you're hopeful about?


Rafael Grossi 30:20 


AI at the moment, I'm very, very hopeful. I'm launching a very big initiative on women's cancer, which is going to be called Rays of Hope, basically aimed at developing countries, mostly in Africa. Half of the African countries have no single radiotherapy unit. Half of the continent, this cannot stand. And I had the idea, you know, the fourth time my team brought me talking points saying this - half of the African countries - I said ‘Stop’, you know, ‘We cannot continue to say this or what are we, commentators? We are here to change that.’


So, we brought together the team and we are launching Rays of Hope and I have great hopes about Rays of Hope. Because, you know, every year 300,000 women more or less are dying of cancers that are completely curable in, you know, cervical cancer or breast cancer. So with very minimal, very minimal infrastructure that the IAEA can give, if they give us the money and I'm not talking about billions or trillions, we are talking about 10 million/11 million, you can have a cancer centre. We can train the people. We can give them the equipment and we can start saving lives so it's a matter of decision, really. So my big hope is Rays of Hope.


Melissa Fleming 31:59


Rafael Grossi, thank you so much for joining us on Awake At Night.


Rafael Grossi 32:02


Thank you so much, Melissa, pleasure.


Melissa Fleming 32:14 


Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org/awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Rafael is @rafaelmgrossi. Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to rate and review us. It does make a difference.


Thanks to my producers Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Cheri Percy, Fatuma Khaireh and my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Geneva Damayanti, Tulin Battikhi and Bissera Kostova and the team here in the UN studio in Vienna.


The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.