Nuclear Security: Rethinking Threats, Responses, Approaches

Panel members at the session on Nuclear Security. (Credit: D.Calma/IAEA)

The foundation has been built, but new and stronger pillars still are needed to upgrade nuclear security worldwide, at national, regional, and global levels. A year after the terrorist attacks in the United States, experts from fields of nuclear security, safety, and safeguards reviewed a range of issues at the IAEA's Scientific Forum this week, calling for stronger collective efforts against new kinds of potential threats.

"It's apparent that strong concerns exist around the world about levels of nuclear security," said Mr. Richard Meserve, Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission who moderated the Forum's Nuclear Security session. "It's also clear we need to employ new ways of thinking and new modes of analysis to assess and respond to problems. The international community has a key role in this process."

Across the board, countries have mobilized efforts to tighten nuclear security, with many benefitting from the IAEA's Action Plan which the Agency's General Conference is considering this week. But in summing up the session, Mr. Meserve said that challenges are formidable in the post-11 September environment, requiring even more concerted action on many fronts.

The session focused on two major elements of nuclear security -- the physical protection of nuclear material and facilities, and the regulation and control of radioactive sources. Keynote presentations were featured on the assessment of nuclear security risks by Mr. Denis Flory, Institute of Radiation Protection and Nuclear Security in France; approaches to protection of nuclear material and facilities by Mr. F. Steinhaeusler, Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, USA; and the control of radioactive sources by Mr. V. Shkolnik, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in Kazakhstan. A concluding panel discussion additionally included overviews of illicit nuclear trafficking by Mr. M. Ridwan, Nuclear Energy Control Board of Indonesia; and Russia's management and control of radioactive sources by Mr. A.M. Agapov, Ministry of Atomic Energy, Russian Federation.

Reinforcing National Measures
States themselves shoulder the prime responsibilities for security, and many re-evaluated their measures over the past year, reinforcing systems and approaches. The steps covered nuclear facilities and material as well as radioactive sources that could be used for what's popularly called a "dirty bomb" and technically a radioactive dispersal device (RDD). While security of sources has improved, it's not yet at desired levels, speakers reported, with funding a major obstacle in countries facing stiff problems.

In Kazakhstan, once home to Soviet military bases and nuclear test sites, gaps are causing concern, despite heightened support from the USA, Russia, and international organizations, mainly the IAEA. Mr. Shkolnik said that many national bodies now are engaged in efforts to account for and control radioactive sources, about 100,000 of which are in commercial use and for the most part sufficiently regulated. The biggest concerns, though, are abandoned, or "orphan" sources left behind after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. More resources are needed to survey areas and recover them, he said, and to strengthen systems to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.

Russia is focusing greater attention on radioactive sources, and recently launched a tripartite partnership with the USA and IAEA to better control them. About 80 organizations in the country are involved to some degree in nuclear regulatory, security, and response systems, Mr. Agapov said, but more must be done to attune them to adequately regulating radiation sources. Among the sources targeted are inside up to 900 radiothermal generators used for electrical power in remote regions of the country.

Next to countermeasures against the RDD threat, action to tighten security at nuclear facilities has intensified. In France and the United States, which together house about a third of the world's nuclear power plants, security systems continue to be re-evaluated and reinforced, as part of larger national response measures. Approaches to assess the protection of nuclear facilities, Mr. Flory said, are not new, and have benefited from lessons learned, particularly in the field of nuclear safety. But security assessments now must increasingly zero in on the risks of terrorist acts, including a jet crash into a power plant. "It's now clearly established that we need to fully take into account suicidal attacks," he said, a once unimaginable scenario.

Both Mr. Flory and Mr. Meserve pointed out that upgrading nuclear plant security is a dynamic, ongoing process, involving many teams of specialists and organizations, and requiring an informed debate, given the public's stake in the outcome. Systems are changing, Mr. Meserve said, in response to the times. "There's a need to significantly enhance the security of nuclear plants," Mr. Meserve said, and "we're rethinking the framework." How much the public is told, or needs to know, about what's being done is a sensitive subject, Mr. Flory noted. The same information needed for an informed debate can be misused to fan public fears or feed the plans of terrorists, illustrating the delicate balance that must be struck between openness and confidentiality on matters of security.

Enlisting Regional & Global Forces
Given the scope of new threats, regional and global cooperation has fast become imperative. Focusing on illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials, Mr. Ridwan cited the more than 400 cases reported to the IAEA's database since 1993. So far, most cases have involved material that cannot be used for weapons-making, and have taken place in Western and Eastern Europe. The dimensions are wider, however, and Mr. Ridwan proposed using established mechansims of nuclear cooperation to forge a stronger regional response. Nuclear cooperative arrangements exist in Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, and Africa, he noted, that could be more engaged to help developing countries improve their infrastructures for nuclear and radiation safety and security.

More far-reaching international action was proposed by Mr. Steinhaeusler. Called the Global Physical Protection Initiative, its six major elements are geared to further strengthening the IAEA's role and closing gaps in the security of nuclear material, facilities, and radioactive sources. One element seeks to tap into the work plan that the Group of 8 countries adopted at their recent Summit in Canada, which calls for raising up to $20 billion over the next decade to combat nuclear and radiological terrorism. Inadequate protection in many countries against new forms of terrorism demand new approaches, he said. "The Summit commitment of G8 countries opens a window of opportunity that we should not miss," he said.

One important gap lies in the international legal framework for nuclear security, which legal and technical experts are addressing under Mr. Flory's chairmanship at the IAEA. The group has yet to agree fully on a draft amendment to strengthen the international Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the only global legal instrument in the area of physical protection that aims to avert potential dangers from the illegal acquisition and use of nuclear material. But Mr. Flory said light is on the horizon. The group is next meeting in early November to iron out remaining matters, with an eye toward submitting the draft amendment to a Diplomatic Conference of Convention Parties at the earliest time.

Last update: 12 November 2014