September 4, 2019 / 11:24 AM / 14 days ago

Test-ban body chief enters race to lead U.N. nuclear watchdog

VIENNA (Reuters) - The head of the global nuclear test-ban agency is running to become the next director general of the U.N. atomic watchdog, he told staff on Wednesday, bringing the number of candidates so far to three from three continents.

Lassina Zerbo, head of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), speaks during an interview with Reuters in Seoul, South Korea, December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano died in July as he was preparing to step down early because of an unspecified illness that had visibly weakened him over the previous year.

His right-hand man, Cornel Feruta of Romania, is now acting director general and running to take over the position fully against Rafael Grossi, a veteran of nuclear diplomacy, currently Argentina’s ambassador to the Vienna-based IAEA.

After weeks of speculation about a possible bid, Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso, who heads the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty Organization (CTBTO), told staff in a meeting at CTBTO headquarters in Vienna that he is running, a person in the meeting said on condition of anonymity.

Feruta has told IAEA member states that he represents "continuity, credibility, impartiality and transparency", and Grossi has said he would ensure "transparency and a fluid and direct dialogue with all" here - an apparent reference to what some diplomats saw as excessive secrecy under Amano.

Zerbo, 55, has yet to circulate a platform as widely. He told staff he has the support of his country and his region.

Diplomats who follow the IAEA do not expect major shifts in how the agency handles its most high-profile issues, such as inspections in Iran and its sought-after return to North Korea.

Zerbo drew the ire of IAEA heavyweight Russia last month by saying where and when Russian CTBTO monitoring stations that scan the air for radioactive particles went offline after a mysterious explosion during a rocket engine test there.

Zerbo also posted a simulatihere of the potential path taken by a plume of gas from the explosion, which made it clear that several stations' communications shut down as the plume was believed to have been approaching.

That fuelled suspicions that Russia tampered with the stations in an effort to hide information about the nature of the blast, which caused a spike in radiation in a nearby city. U.S.-based nuclear experts have said they suspect Russia was testing a nuclear-powered cruise missile.

Russia told the CTBTO the explosion was none of its business and handing any radiation data to it was voluntary.

The deadline for candidates to come forward is Thursday. The IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors aims to choose Amano’s successor next month.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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