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Nuclear security through the eyes of the Co-Presidents of ICONS 2024

Sungat Yessimkhanov, Vice-Minister of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia, are the Co-Presidents of the International Conference on Nuclear Security: Shaping the Future (ICONS 2024).

The conference has become a key event for the global nuclear security community. It provides a platform for ministers, policymakers, senior officials and nuclear security experts to come together and deliberate on the future of global nuclear security, and facilitates information exchange, the sharing of best practices, and the promotion of international cooperation.

The Co-Presidents share their views about the significance of the conference, the contribution of nuclear security to sustainable development, and how the future will be shaped by emerging technologies such as AI and by emerging risks and threats in nuclear security.

Q: Why do you think participation at ICONS 2024 is important at the ministerial level?

Tim Watts: A strong and sustainable nuclear security system has never been more imperative. In Australia, nuclear science and technology is used in medicine, research and industry. Strong ministerial leadership informed by diverse experiences and perspectives, current approaches, and a greater understanding of technology is required to navigate the challenges and uncertainty that could impact nuclear security.

The conference is a key event for the global nuclear security community. Ministerial involvement is critical to demonstrating our collective commitment to strengthening nuclear security globally. It provides an opportunity for countries to progress aligned commitments and priorities and work closely on their national nuclear security regimes.

The past four years have been a time of momentous change for nuclear security. If there was ever a time for strong ministerial attendance and commitments, that time is now.

Sungat Yessimkhanov: ICONS 2024 is a major event for the global nuclear security community and comes at a critical time for international nuclear security. Despite some risks and challenges — from climate change and natural disasters to global pandemics — AI products and advanced computing technologies offer new opportunities to strengthen nuclear security regimes.

Given that the responsibility for nuclear security rests entirely with States, ICONS 2024 provides a unique opportunity to reaffirm, at the ministerial level, States’ commitments to promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy and fulfilling all of their international obligations in the field of nuclear security.

Q: What changes would you like to see in nuclear security and what is needed to make them happen?

Tim Watts: Nuclear science and technology can make a considerable difference to people’s lives. Their development enables us to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time, including those related to health and wellbeing, and food security.

As a world leading producer of nuclear medicines to diagnose and treat cancer and other diseases, Australia recognizes the important role of nuclear security in facilitating the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. On average, every Australian will need at least two nuclear medicine procedures during their lifetime.

As the world continues to leverage nuclear science and technology, we must ensure that nuclear security standards are upheld to prevent the exploitation of this technology for harmful purposes.

Building resilience in all countries by sharing diverse experiences and knowledge is key. All countries can contribute to creating and maintaining a durable and resilient global nuclear security system.

We welcome the increasing number of training activities offered by the Agency. Fair access to knowledge and resources is a crucial aspect of future planning, fortifying against threats, and seizing opportunities. The underlying principles of fair access are instrumental in Australia’s collaborative efforts with our regional partners on nuclear security.

The theme of ICONS 2024 is “Shaping the Future”. Ensuring that all countries have the capability to future-proof their nuclear security architecture also strengthens a country’s contribution to, and sovereignty in, these global conversations. This progress leads toward collective commitments at the national and international levels to enhance nuclear security standards for the benefit of all.

Sungat Yessimkhanov: Kazakhstan has gained unique experience in bringing its largest nuclear weapons testing facility, the former Semipalatinsk test site, into a secure state. Specialists from the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan (NNC) carried out a wide range of work at this facility to strengthen security measures and install physical barriers to prevent access to test sites, decommissioned wells and tunnels.

Improving nuclear security is a critical task involving multiple stakeholders, including governments, international organizations, the nuclear industry and the public. There are several key elements that should be continuously addressed to ensure robust nuclear security, including personnel development, enhanced regulation and control and the strengthening of international cooperation.

Increased cooperation and information sharing among countries helps to prevent the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and technologies. International agreements such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its Amendment, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources and relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions play a crucial role in this regard.

Investing in research and development (R&D) for advanced technologies for nuclear security, such as better methods for detecting nuclear materials, improved surveillance systems and robust cybersecurity measures can strengthen the overall security posture. On the other hand, as technology evolves, new threats to nuclear security may emerge, such as cyber-attacks or the use of drones for malicious purposes. Continually monitoring and adapting security measures to address these evolving threats must be a priority for States and must be supported by the international community.

Q: How can countries prepare their nuclear security regimes for emerging technologies such as AI?

Tim Watts: International events like ICONS play a fundamental role in creating an environment for collaboration. They help us to prepare our nuclear security system so as to capitalize on, and minimize the harm of, emerging technologies such as AI. We need to shape AI rules and norms related to the nuclear security architecture to protect it from malicious cyberactivity.

A global effort is required to manage these complex and evolving challenges. The diverse expertise of conference attendees, including policymakers, academics, the private sector and non-governmental organizations, will create an environment in which we can work together on shared challenges and respond collectively.

Getting these fundamentals right in domestic frameworks, policies and initiatives creates a sound platform on which to build international cooperation and resilience.

At ICONS 2024, countries will have the opportunity to share how they are building their capacity to respond to AI opportunities that will be of assistance in getting things done in more efficient, economic, effective and equitable ways. Experts’ best practices will inform Member States’ domestic nuclear security regimes.

Sungat Yessimkhanov: As emerging technologies such as AI continue to evolve, countries will need to adapt their nuclear security measures to mitigate potential risks and reap the benefits.

Governments and relevant organizations should conduct comprehensive risk assessments to identify potential vulnerabilities and threats that may arise from the integration of AI into nuclear security systems. Understanding these risks is essential to developing effective mitigation strategies.

It’s important to develop regulatory frameworks and guidelines by updating existing regulations or creating new ones to address the unique challenges posed by AI technologies in the nuclear security domain. By ensuring that robust cybersecurity measures are in place, countries can protect themselves from cyber-threats and cyber-attacks. This includes implementing encryption, access controls, and regular security updates.

Q: What are the major emerging risks and threats in nuclear security around the world?

Tim Watts: The global community is grappling with emerging risks and threats to nuclear security. As they evolve, so must our nuclear security frameworks and responses.

ICONS 2024 will provide an opportunity for countries to share how they are developing their capabilities and technologies to address risks and threats. It will facilitate discussions to shape the Agency’s Nuclear Security Plan for the period 2026–2029 to advance the global nuclear security agenda.

Australia is focused on working closely with its international partners to address supply chain security. Industry is at the forefront of R&D. Ensuring that the principles of nuclear security can be adopted early by industry and government is critical to ensuring nuclear security isn’t compromised.

Australia’s commitment to the Women, Peace and Security agenda is steadfast and enduring. With ten United Nations Security Council resolutions that many countries, including Australia, have tailored to their contexts through national and regional action plans, we know that diversity, equity and inclusion are central to establishing and maintaining peace and security. This applies to nuclear security, in which the full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership of women is an essential element.

Australia is proud to partner with Kazakhstan to host a side event at ICONS 2024, providing practical insights and actionable guidance on gender equality and inclusive leadership as positive drivers of the future of nuclear security.

Sungat Yessimkhanov: Indeed, the rapid development of new technologies such as AI, quantum computing and uncrewed systems poses new challenges and vulnerabilities in terms of nuclear security. Malicious actors may target critical infrastructure such as power plants or nuclear research facilities to disrupt operations, steal sensitive information or sabotage systems.

With the ever-increasing spread of disinformation, special attention should be paid to the protection of materials that are not highly radioactive and not suitable for making nuclear weapons, but whose use for malicious purposes could have a negative impact on the public, causing ‘radiophobia’ and undermining confidence in the nuclear industry.

Non-State actors, including terrorist organizations, may seek to acquire nuclear materials or technology to build improvised nuclear devices or radiological dispersal devices, also known as ‘dirty bombs’.

The proliferation of nuclear materials and technologies through illicit trafficking networks remains a concern. Trafficking activities may involve the smuggling of radioactive materials, nuclear weapons components or sensitive nuclear technology across borders, potentially enabling State or non-State actors to acquire nuclear capabilities.

Insider threats, which include unauthorized access by employees or contractors with malicious intent, pose a significant challenge to nuclear security. These threats can include theft, sabotage or damage to nuclear materials, facilities or information.

Q: How can nuclear security support sustainable development initiatives around the world in the coming years?

Tim Watts: Nuclear security underpins and enables sustainable development initiatives. For example, food irradiation enables countries to export food products across borders and enhance food safety by eliminating germs and pests. Additionally, radiation equipment used in cancer treatment is a crucial element of initiatives such as Rays of Hope, aimed at reducing the cancer care gap in low and middle income countries. These peaceful uses of radiation to enhance food security and treat cancer are supported by strong and sustainable nuclear security regimes.

Nuclear security needs to be built into our sustainable development initiatives from the outset, and must not be an afterthought or something that is worked on in isolation outside of our social and economic development programmes.

It is time for nuclear security to advance and become embedded in our programmes.

Sungat Yessimkhanov: As the world’s leading exporter of uranium, providing 43% of the global supply, Kazakhstan plays a crucial role in carbon-free power generation on a global scale. The establishment of robust national nuclear security regimes will ensure a guaranteed nuclear energy chain for humanity and promote the implementation of sustainable development initiatives around the world.

Kazakhstan has contributed to the non-proliferation regime and the sustainable development of nuclear energy by hosting the unique IAEA Low Enriched Uranium Bank. In addition, we continue to implement research reactor conversion projects aimed at converting highly enriched uranium fuel to low enriched uranium fuel, thereby helping to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation. Only last year, we successfully completed the conversion of another research reactor at NNC, which is now fully operating on low enriched fuel.

In this context, strengthening national nuclear security regimes helps to prevent the illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials, enhances public confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear and radiation technologies, and promotes sustainable nuclear energy development strategies worldwide.

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