Hot Spots, Weak Links
Strengthening Nuclear Security in a Changing World

Protection against nuclear terrorism is one of the critical issues facing the international community today. New and challenging security dimensions must be met.

During the Cold War, the main international security concern was the fear of a nuclear war and the spread of nuclear weapons. The post-Cold War era presented new security challenges, which recognized the need to strengthen the international regime of physical protection of nuclear materials.

In the post-9/11 period, threat perceptions include the potential terrorist use of an improvised nuclear explosive device, the use of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) and attacks against nuclear facilities, i.e. sabotage. These threats point to the need for an overall strengthening of the global nuclear security regime with attention to "weak links" that may offer soft targets for terrorists or criminals.

This article discusses some of the basic concepts and developments in the field of nuclear security; the legacy of the Cold War and the rise of new challenges to the global nuclear security agenda in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 periods; and efforts of the IAEA to strengthen the global nuclear security regime. The IAEA is filling an important and expanding role, yet more measures are needed.

The Evolving Context of Nuclear Security

The Cold-War Period

During the height of the Cold War, "nuclear deterrence" and "nuclear proliferation" dominated the global nuclear security agenda. In their national security strategies, States considered calculable threats of high-intensity and low probability - nuclear conflicts based upon the predictable rational behavior of known State-level adversaries (also known as "rational actor theory"). A bi-polar security structure gave rise to the "nuclear deterrence" doctrine.

Concerns that additional States would acquire nuclear weapon capability ("horizontal" proliferation) led to the conclusion of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968. While the Treaty prohibited non-nuclear weapon States parties to acquire nuclear weapons, "vertical" proliferation involving the development and deployment of more sophisticated nuclear weapons continued among the five nuclear-weapon States.

The NPT, which has now been in force for more than three decades, is one of the most successful international treaties. In the 1960s, it was feared that the number of nuclear-weapon States could rise to 20 and above, but due in large part to the NPT, that number has been curtailed to about eight States. While the nuclear disarmament forecast under Article VI of the Treaty has not yet been achieved as expected, bilateral disarmament treaties and the voluntary reductions of nuclear weapons have lessened the global stockpiles of nuclear weapons from their Cold War heights.

The Post-Cold War Period

The end of the Cold War was marked by a shift from a bipolar structure of global security to more complex international relations. An increased risk for low-intensity national and regional conflicts emerged with new and more dispersed threats involving a larger number of actors: criminals or terrorists, which operate with trans-border networks.

The discovery in the early 1990s of clandestine nuclear programmes in Iraq and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) prompted the development and adoption of the Model Additional Protocol to safeguards agreements. In addition, the disintegration of the Soviet Union resulted in a larger number of States being left with nuclear weapons on their territories, and having responsibility for nuclear material. Also, dismantling of nuclear weapons resulted in large quantities of weapons-grade nuclear material in storage facilities.

The many cases of illicit trafficking in nuclear materials triggered an awareness of the need to strengthen the international physical protection regime. In 1999, the IAEA Director General, inter-alia, convened an open-ended group of experts to examine the need to strengthen the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). The work was completed in 2003, when a report containing a number of proposals to strengthen the Convention was submitted to the IAEA Director General.

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