New IAEA-Industry "Group of Vienna": Portolan Global's Parenthood

The newly created “Group of Vienna”: Portolan Global’s Role   

They say every successful initiative has many parents claiming it as theirs. For this one, I can proudly say: I’m the father. Let me explain.

In my blog of 16 August 2020, “International Diplomacy and the Nuclear Industry: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle”, I spoke about the need for greater interaction and understanding between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) secretariat and CEOs of leading companies and utilities producing civil nuclear power. I had in mind a "Director General's Roundtable with Nuclear Industry" as the means to do so.

I was therefore delighted to learn that, at the IAEA’s most recent General Conference (20-24 September), Director General Rafael Grossi met with CEOs from 13 top nuclear energy companies and state enterprises in the inaugural meeting of the Group of Vienna. [See IAEA press release]

Origin of the Group of Vienna: my role

Where did the idea behind the Group of Vienna originate? Who was the parent? In truth, it was Portolan Global and its President. Let me tell you the background and how it happened.

At a meeting with Director General Grossi on 11 Feb 2020, we noted the increasing support among IAEA member states for including industry in selected areas of the Agency’s work. [See, for example, the Ministers’ Statement at the 2020 International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS). But no one had yet found a formula for making this a practical reality – and, importantly, acceptable to the IAEA’s membership.

The challenge was to map out a pathway for the Director General to conduct effective engagement with industry while keeping within his powers and remit. Following our meeting, I undertook to develop a “non-paper” for DG Grossi on what such an initiative and pathway would look like.

In the concept paper I sent to DG Grossi and his staff on 5 May 2020, I proposed the Director General’s Roundtable Dialogue with Nuclear Industry with the following objectives:

  • To identify ways and means to engage, more systematically and effectively, industry leaders and representatives with the IAEA to help to inform the Agency’s work in strengthening civil nuclear safeguards, safety and security. 
  • To provide the IAEA Director General with a consultative opportunity to dialogue with senior industry leaders (at CEO or Vice-President/Chief Nuclear Operator levels) on such topics.
  • To obtain input and feedback from (a) sectors of the nuclear industry most familiar with and responsible for operations related to implementation of safeguards, safety and security regulations, policies and activities; and from (b) technology developers working on advanced designs and fuels for research, power and isotope-producing reactors.

However, to make this Roundtable work, there were essentially 3 challenges to address.

Challenge 1: How to be Successful?

To be successful, the DG’s engagement with industry should be in the form of a “roundtable dialogue”. The meetings should be kept informal but informative, focusing on how industry can support the DG’s mandate. Furthermore, the DG’s roundtable dialogue could also be a source of ideas for greater, more effective interaction and understanding between industry and the Agency secretariat on operational and regulatory matters.

Challenge 2: Who would attend?

I had been a founding member of an earlier attempt to create a sustainable and effective means of engagement between industry and the IAEA – the Nuclear Industry Steering Group on Security (NISGS). NISGS did not succeed at the time (2016-2018) due to a lack of support from the previous Director General and from high-level industry representatives (CEO and Vice-President). The climate action and sustainability agendas had not yet galvanized the global nuclear industry to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or seek greater engagement with relevant international organizations such as the IAEA.

As to who would attend the DG’s Roundtable, I suggested consulting selected international industry organizations (e.g., WNTI, WNA, WINS, WANO) and national industry associations (e.g., NEI, NIAUK, JAIF, CNA, KAIF, CNEA, etc.) to identify industry representatives at executive or board level. Ideally these would have OPEX or operator experience or from companies designing and developing advanced nuclear technology.   

Challenge 3: What would be the agenda and format?

From an industry perspective, the Roundtable Agenda could include:

  • Scenarios relating to safety and security risks – i.e., energy infrastructure, cyber-security, insider threat, loss-of-coolant, terrorism
  • New/Advanced technologies: SMRs, advanced reactors, isotopes, new fuels
  • Movement: transport of reactors and fuels, logistics, regulations
  • Fuel Cycle: fuel supply, used fuel & waste
  • Emergency Planning Zones: commercial impact, regulation

From the DG perspective, the Roundtable Agenda could also include:

  1. Industry support of IAEA-led activities (e.g., conferences, international peer review missions, Nuclear Support Centres, international review conferences, etc.)
  2. Gender balance and diversity in industry
  3. Non-proliferation and export controls – encouraging industry cooperation
  4. Extending peaceful uses of nuclear technology – Technical Cooperation and Sustainable Development

Industry engagement with IAEA: other areas to explore

I also proposed other initiatives that the DG could take to enhance industry engagement with the IAEA. Here is the gist of some of the steps I included in my  concept paper:

  • Request member states (a) to include industry input in their national positions on nuclear safeguards, safety and security and (b) to embed industry representation in their national delegations.
  • Launch a DG-led task force on gender balance and work force diversity (cf. ICONS Ministerial Statement); DG would seek “best practices” from industry on such matters, including possible collaboration on improvement objectives.
  • Chair a special (informal) IAEA meeting on furthering industry engagement. This could be with member states only; could also be with the participation of industry.
  • Undertake a big push on sustainability and nuclear energy in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals; highlight industry’s contribution to many of the SDGs, from clean energy to publish health (isotopes).
  • Focus on norms and the peaceful uses of nuclear power (cf. paras 43 & 44 of the NPT Prep Comm, November 2019) to underline the role of industry/operators in supporting non-proliferation.
  • Revitalize the NPT’s “peaceful uses initiative”, to include industry participation in support the IAEA Technical Cooperation Program by funding capacity-building in nuclear safeguards, safety and security (power and radiological medicine). Industry could contribute financial, technical or human resources to the “initiative”.
  • Use IAEA’s coordinating role with Contact Group to advocate for greater industry engagement in nuclear security commitments and actions (i.e., with the UN 1540 Committee, INTERPOL, Global Partnership, GICNT).
  • Keep pace with advanced & emerging technologies, especially designs for advanced and small reactors (ASRs) – and implications for reducing GHG emissions globally.

The actual parent is seldom recognized – but that’s okay too

The concept paper on the Director General’s Roundtable with Nuclear Industry was received, adopted and partially adapted by the staff in DG Grossi’s office in May 2020. By then, the impact of the covid-19 virus was increasingly being felt around the world and in-person meetings and conferences were either postponed or moved virtually into the cloud. The IAEA was no exception. The Group of Vienna therefore languished until now, as pared down national delegations began to emerge from their capitals and head to Vienna this September for the General Conference.

Et voilà. The Group of Vienna was born on 22 September 2020.

Concluding thought

I am proud to be the parent and originator of this ground-breaking initiative. This is where Portolan Global’s ideas, connections and experience in diplomacy, international security, and the nuclear industry can be of help.

And I am pleased not only that the Group of Vienna has been launched, but that it will also meet regularly in future and doubtless expand in industry membership and relevance.

One small step for great understanding and cooperation in international safety and security, in an increasingly unruly and divided world.