Rafael Grossi Has a Plan to Stop Future Pandemics

The ambitious head of the IAEA is reinventing the nuclear watchdog—though some fear he’s spreading the agency too thin.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Rafael Grossi speaks at an IAEA press conference.
Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks during a press conference at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna on March 4. ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images

International bureaucrats dont usually make headlines—especially when the great powers are jostling for attention. But Rafael Mariano Grossi did just that last month when, in the face of a harrowing, seemingly insoluble stalemate between the United States, Iran, and Europe, he decided on his own to fly to Tehran to try to salvage the disintegrating 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Everyone afterward thanked Grossi for his initiative—he negotiated a three-month compromise that preserved inspection data—but no one was especially surprised at his efforts, knowing the record of the energetic 60-year-old Argentine. Yet Grossi, who is the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has also been quite active out of the headlines. Since last year, he has been frenetically finding ways to expand the IAEA’s agenda and bring it into the fight against two of the most serious issues of the future: pandemics and climate change. 

On Grossi’s watch, the Vienna-based IAEA is deploying its extensive network of laboratories around the world, mainly in association with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization (WHO), to set up a global early warning system for animal-borne viruses, which are sure to follow COVID-19 and possibly become future pandemics. 

And it won’t just detect them, if all goes according to plan. Grossi last June launched the so-called ZODIAC program, an acronym for Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action, which can potentially use such technologies as nuclear irradiation (a sterilizing technique used in blood transfusions) to destroy threatening viruses before they spread into another global pandemic. 

“I think by this summer, we are going to already deliver equipment and training, especially to focal points in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America,” Grossi told Foreign Policy in an interview from his headquarters in Vienna. 

Many experts say it’s none too soon to bring oft-slighted international organizations like the IAEA into play, even if seemingly outside its lane. “He’s an ambitious man but also very clear-eyed. He’s not afraid to use the powers of the agency when required,” said Andreas Persbo, a nonproliferation expert at the European Leadership Network. 

As Grossi knows, COVID-19 is likely to be just the start of a chronic pandemic threat that will grow worse as the human population expands and encroaches on animal habitats like those of disease-bearing bats, against which humans have little or no natural resistance.

“What kind of two-by-four in the face is it going to take for us to realize that COVID-19 is already the third coronavirus of this century?” said former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a scientist who is now head of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative. “We are dealing with an age of tremendous human mobility. Zoonotic diseases that can be contracted by individuals can be spread to every place in the world within days. The idea is to use all the tools at our disposal through innovative approaches, for example isotopic techniques like blood irradiation. It’s that big a problem.”

The century’s first two serious viruses, both coronaviruses, are still around—severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Grossi said the emergence of other animal-borne viruses, such as Ebola, show that COVID-19 is very unlikely to be a one-off phenomenon. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of new human diseases originate in animals.

Grossi’s new initiative builds on previous IAEA efforts, including Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratorya network to help the IAEA’s 172 member states improve laboratory capacities to detect and control diseases threatening livestock and public health early. The agency is also working with the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health to monitor crops worldwide. 

“It comes down to high school chemistry,” said, Grossi, who took over the IAEA less than a year and a half ago. “We have this vast experience that allows us to not only discern enriched uranium where it shouldn’t be but can also be put to good use to determine whether a pathogen is making a transit from animals to humans.”

It’s just a part of Grossi’s unusually active agenda, including aggressively promoting civilian nuclear power to address climate change and ocean acidification—all while continuing his main mission of monitoring nuclear proliferators, such as Iran, which some experts fear is getting lost in the shuffle as Grossi acts as nuclear cheerleader and virus hunter.

Grossi and his advocates heatedly disagree. Even as he laid the groundwork for ZODIAC, in mid-February the director-general jumped on top of the emerging crisis over a Feb. 23 deadline set by Iran for cutting off inspections under the nuclear pact. Such an outcome might well have sunk the deal for good, and Washington refused to bend on its insistence that Tehran return to observing the deal, but Grossi negotiated an 11th hour “understanding” that most inspections could continue for three months. Despite recent news of new uranium traces, he said Tehran is still observing the accommodation, and the IAEA is making “technical” visits that he hopes will provide answers by April.

“The IAEA does not stop for a single minute. There’s so much we can do,” said the dark-haired, wiry Grossi, a sometime long-distance runner who is widely considered one of the most talented and activist IAEA leaders in its 63-year-long history. 

“Basically, when COVID struck, I asked my experts and scientists about what we could do,” Grossi said, who was able to tap a number of high-tech laboratories just miles away from Vienna. He ordered his team to connect more closely with the global network of some 300 veterinary labs and “to design something that would enhance this cooperation with these labs and give them capabilities they obviously lack to participate in early detection.” 

But Grossi said that’s only part of his plan for reinventing the agency. Another is promoting nuclear energy as an energy source that can replace fossil fuels and help fight against global warming. “My view is that nuclear has a place at the table,” he said, promising the IAEA would be present at the next big U.N. climate conference in Scotland in November.

That, too, is a change for the nominally neutral IAEA, a U.N. agency that is subject to the mandate of its member states. Its charter calls for the agency “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world” in addition to preventing its use for military purposes, even though most previous directors have kept their nuclear boosterism low-key. Grossi is now taking that mandate to the limit. 

“Historically, the directors-general have been careful not to be cheerleaders for nuclear power,” said Laura Rockwood, a long-time former IAEA official. “It’s for each state to decide. But Rafael has been very much out there and much more proactively pro-[nuclear].”

Even so, some nuclear experts worry Grossi may be spreading himself and his agency too thin. In particular, they wonder if he is so eager to promote safe nuclear energy that he may be short-shifting safety, specifically by promoting small modular reactors in remote parts of the planet, which could test the IAEA’s inspection resources. Though SMRs have been approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it’s not clear such new smaller reactors can be made competitive with cheaper sources of energy.

“As I see it, it is still beating the drum for nuclear power and for nuclear techniques in industry and agriculture when there are better solutions,” said Victor Gilinsky, a physicist and former commissioner for the first U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “It thereby skews investment decisions and scientific manpower in less advanced countries. My impression is that the agency is more devoted to its ‘positive’ role of nurturing nuclear development than to the ‘negative’ policing.”

“Just judging from his public statement about [new types of reactors], I would be concerned that he’s engaging in advocacy without due attention to safeguards,” said Edwin Lyman, director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Or as Henry Sokolski, a former U.S. defense official and head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, put it: “He’s the most articulate and progressive IAEA director ever, but it’s unclear if he will have any more success than his predecessors did in making sure nuclear power doesn’t perform as bomb starter kits in the world’s hot spots.”

Grossi insists the IAEA is not a lobbyist for nuclear power and has not stinted a bit in its monitoring duties, and he is working hard to solve the nuclear waste problem as well. “The solutions are there,” Grossi said. “Recently, I went to Finland and descended a half mile into the first almost operational reservatory for nuclear waste. The Swedes are going to start construction of a similar place. There is simply no comparison, Grossi insisted, between the safety issues of storing nuclear waste and what fossil fuels are doing to the atmosphere. “The entire volume of nuclear waste in the U.S. you can put in a big parking lot.”

A father of eight, Grossi somehow manages to find the time to at once coach his son’s soccer team and flit around the globe regularly—and more, dedicate himself to reinvigorating the very idea of an international community when it is needed more than ever. Under former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, that notion was dismissed as fiction. “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism,” Trump said. Even as many national governments are turning inward, with populism raging from the Americas through Europe and into Asia, many advocates say Grossi may be changing the calculus just as transnational threats like pandemics and climate change are thundering over the horizon. 

“One doesn’t always find the coincidence in one person of a strong diplomatic background with a real focus on technology. But he has it,” Moniz said.

As he describes it, Grossi first became interested in nonproliferation issues as a young diplomat just out of foreign-service training in the mid-1980s, when Argentina was just emerging from decades of military rule and he saw the dangers of new technologies spreading worldwide in the wrong hands. (Under the junta, Argentina began a nuclear weapons program, but it was discarded when democracy was restored in 1983.)

More broadly, Grossi realized early on that many international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, no longer exercised real independence but had become the pawns of national governments, Persbo said, who noted that when Trump accused the WHO of parroting Beijing’s position about the origin of COVID-19 last year, it wasn’t the first time a major international organization was accused of such behavior. The IAEA’s own reputation was damaged after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, when Tokyo dictated its own narrative to Vienna.

The answer, for Grossi, seems to be a forward-leaning approach to all of the IAEA’s mandates. On nuclear nonproliferation, for example, he has expanded the IAEA’s reach beyond member governments into nongovernmental organizations. He has also opened up a dialogue with corporations that oversee multinational supply chains in dual-use technologies, sending in his inspectors to determine whether companies are making or receiving requests for export licenses for the kind of gear that can be used for nuclear weapons.

When it comes to the international community, whether fighting proliferators, pandemics, or climate change, Grossi thinks there’s a role for him. “The IAEA has proven in the last few months that it can be the glue that keeps together the whole mechanism,” he said. “This organization is a unique instrument. You can do so much with it if you have the political will and the countries allow you to do it.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh