Rafael Mariano Grossi has a very complicated job. As director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it is his task to mediate between Russia and Ukraine to prevent a nuclear disaster at the Ukrainian plant in Zaporizhzhia, the largest of its kind in Europe, which has been under the military control of Moscow since the early days of the invasion. On October 11, Grossi visited Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also held meetings with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy. His aim was to try and convince both of the need to establish a security zone around the plant. “It is a point of note that they are working with me. They have little time to be distracted by receiving the head of the IAEA, but they see that there is added value in protecting the plant,” Grossi says from Buenos Aires, a city he is visiting for the first time since taking office in 2019.
Grossi received a small number of media outlets, including EL PAÍS, at the headquarters of the Catholic University of Argentina, where as director he inaugurated the International Chair for Sustainable Development, the Common Good and Peace.
Question: Volodymyr Zelenskiy said last Tuesday that Russia has destroyed 30% of Ukraine’s power generation capacity. How dangerous is that for operations at Zaporizhzhia?
Answer: What worries me most is the interruption of the electricity supply, something that is happening frequently at the moment. A line goes down, it is repaired, there is another attack, and it goes down again. It is part of a general pattern of the enormous fragility of the plant itself and of the system in general.
Q. Some 53% of Ukraine’s energy supply is of nuclear origin. Do you fear that Russian attacks on electrical infrastructure will be followed by others against nuclear power plants?
A. I prefer not to speculate. The other plants, in Rivne, Khmelnytskyi and south Ukraine, have not been attacked, and I hope that will continue to be the case. It does not seem to be a Russian military objective to attack nuclear plants. And I have been told by the Russian government it has no such intention. Of course, this has to be verified.
Q. How was your meeting with Vladimir Putin?
A. I wouldn’t want to use the word favorable, but it was solid. I find that both Putin and Zelenskiy are willing to work with me. They have little time to be distracted by receiving the head of the IAEA and putting pressure on themselves if it is not in their interest. They see that there is added value in protecting the plant and that is a foundation to build on. We are already working on the broad outlines of what would be a protected zone [around Zaporizhzhia].
Q. And if you had to describe your meeting with Putin from a personal point of view?
A. He is an extremely focused person, with enormous amount of knowledge of the situation and in particular of that nuclear plant. And he spoke with great intensity.
Q. What message will you now take to Zelenskiy?
A. My challenge is to put proposals on the table that may be acceptable to both. If I tell them to do things that they cannot accept from the point of view of defending their national interests, I am heading down the wrong path in the negotiation. I don’t have a message; I have many ideas and many technical points that I am discussing with them. It is not just a political negotiation, the defense authorities and the nuclear sector also participate. There are many interlocutors, each of whom has different requirements and expectations.
Q. Do those expectations include the possible use of nuclear weapons?
A. I have no indication or information to suggest that there are preparations to use nuclear weapons in the conflict. Although yes, I admit, there has been some talk of raising the alert level of nuclear weapons in the Russian Federation.
Q. You are planning a trip to the United States. How important is Washington in these negotiations?
A. I do business with Ukraine and Russia. What I can say is that I also have strong interaction with world leaders who are concerned about the evolution of this situation. What I try to do is to get them to support me; I need their support and I tell them that. I have an interview scheduled with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with an agenda that also includes Iran.
Q. What will you tell him about the situation in Iran?
A. We are at an impasse that concerns me a lot because the Iranian nuclear program is advancing in leaps and bounds. They have more and more centrifuges, more and more nuclear material. The only point that I will highlight, because I think I have to be very objective about this, is that I have timidly started a dialog with the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Dr. [Mohammad] Eslami, who I saw in Vienna and with whom I had an honest and frank dialog. There, I put forward some ideas to see if we can find a way out of this situation.
Q. Is it accurate to say that we are at a turning point in the doctrine of nuclear deterrence?
A. What is disturbing is that the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict between a nuclear-weapon state and a non-nuclear-weapon state has returned to the public discourse. I find public discussion of these issues dangerous. Nuclear weapons, which do unfortunately exist, are theoretically a deterrent and I hope they remain that way. A war in which one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council is directly involved, a non-peripheral war, is going to lead to rearrangements in reality.
Q. How would you assess the situation in North Korea, another country that is making no secret of its aspiration to acquire nuclear weapons?
A. We are monitoring the situation in North Korea very closely. Regular reports are showing more facilities, more [uranium] enrichment activity and processing. They are stockpiling nuclear material to make more nuclear weapons. It is a front on which everything is really pretty bad.