Photo by D Calma for IAEA

IAEA Calls for Strengthened Nuclear Security

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has called for universal adherence to and full implementation of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and its 2005 Amendment during the 64th IAEA General Conference.

The virtual “NuSec Talks: Security through Law” event, held on September 21, drew an audience from around the world to discuss the tangible nuclear security benefits of joining and implementing the only legally binding international undertaking on the physical protection of nuclear material and nuclear facilities used for peaceful purposes.

The event featured presentations by Grossi himself as well as Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, Peri Lynne Johnson, IAEA Legal Adviser and Director of the Office of Legal Affairs, and Charles Oko, Counsellor at the Nigerian Mission to the International Organizations in Vienna.

“The amended CPPNM [is meant] to ensure that anyone involved in criminal acts involving nuclear material is denied safe haven and brought to justice,” said Mr Grossi in his opening statement. “I appeal to all countries that have not yet done so: please adhere to the amended CPPNM as a matter of urgency.”

Director General Grossi’s urgent call to action addresses all countries: those with nuclear material and those with little or no nuclear material within their territory – but onto whose territories such material may be smuggled. Countries with nuclear power programs and wide utilization of nuclear material for peaceful purposes are likely to have a legislative and regulatory framework in place. However, bringing these legal frameworks in line with the obligations of the CPPNM, as amended, would harmonize national approaches to prevent and respond to criminal and other unauthorized acts involving nuclear material and facilities.

Illicit trafficking of nuclear material remains a concern. Since 2001, countries have reported 48 incidents to the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) involving highly enriched uranium, low enriched uranium and plutonium out of regulatory control – i.e. missing or having been stolen. Of those incidents, at least 10 were confirmed to be related to illicit trafficking.

These reports of illicit trafficking suggest a continued threat to nuclear and other radioactive material.

“Nuclear facilities or facilities holding radiological material could also be exposed to terrorist sabotage, infiltration or attacks,” said Voronkov in his address from New York. “Potential misuse of new technologies, such as drones, artificial intelligence and 3D printing, present new angles to the threat, with which we must grapple.”

The trends continue to evolve with the advent of new technologies and adversaries continue to look for paths of least resistance to gain unauthorized access to sensitive material.

“A State, among other things, has to establish an appropriate legal and regulatory framework to govern the physical protection, adapted to the nature and extent of the facilities and activities to be regulated,” said Johnson. “Implementation also entails criminalizing the offences listed in the Convention [as amended], establishing the necessary jurisdiction over the criminal offences and ensuring extradition or prosecution of alleged offenders.”

While those measures focus on the national aspects of implementing the CPPNM and its Amendment, there are also obligations that facilitate closer cooperation between the Parties. Among those is designation of national points of contact, including for cooperating in the event of sabotage and for recovering stolen or smuggled material. While the IAEA maintains the list of contacts and may be called upon to facilitate cooperation, the implementation of the CPPNM and its Amendment strengthens the mechanisms for collaboration between the countries themselves.

“Having made significant progress to strengthen nuclear security in our own country, we appreciate that the journey of adherence and effective implementation is long and could be difficult,” said Oko, reflecting on the Nigeria’s experience of implementing the CPPNM and its Amendment. “However, the results of implementing the Convention and the Amendment are tangible. For Nigeria and for the world.”

Following the expression of the legal commitment to the CPPNM and its Amendment, Nigeria strengthened its national nuclear security regime and led regional and international efforts to assist other countries in strengthening theirs. In cooperation with the international community, Nigeria upgraded the physical protection infrastructure at its research reactor and other facilities around the country, criminalized offences and established judicial processes for handling them.

Although the nuclear security of a State lies entirely with that State, no country has to navigate the challenges — either technical or legal — of implementing the CPPNM and its Amendment on their own. The IAEA provides assistance, upon request, through the Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plan, International Physical Protection Advisory Service missions, and legislative assistance. Countries will have the opportunity to share experiences and lessons learned at the upcoming Review Conference of the Parties to the Amendment to the CPPNM, scheduled for 2021.

As Grossi concluded, “We will all benefit from a strengthened international framework on combatting nuclear terrorism.”

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