Secure in the knowledge of safeguards

3 May 2002

Every four years, the IAEA holds a Safeguards Symposium in order that it can look into the various methods of improving nuclear security throughout the world. The most recent such Symposium was held in Vienna in November 2001, mainly covering the topics of verification and nuclear material safety. It also looked at the implications of the attacks of 11 September.

It has become something of a cliché to refer to security concerns in the aftermath of 11 September. However, regardless of the attention of the public, and regardless of the media attention devoted to the potential of terrorist activity against a nuclear facility, the nuclear industry has long since recognised security concerns. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that this was the ninth such symposium. Nontheless, while the symposium had been planned well before 11 September, it was generally agreed by many speakers at the symposium that it acted as a 'wake-up' call to the industry. Among the speakers that made this claim were the IAEA's director general El Baradei and the United Nations under-secretary general Dhanapala.

Four years ago, the Safeguards Symposium came at a time when the IAEA system was being strengthened by adoption of the Model Additional Protocol, but no Additional Protocols had been signed. Over the past four years, the full extent of the Strengthened Safeguards System began to take shape. Although the rate at which the Protocols are being signed and are entering into force is not satisfactory, the trends are evident. The impact of zero real growth on the IAEA budget further has served to force compromises in the quality of the safeguards system, and to demand working expectations beyond prudent limits.

As a result, the IAEA safeguards system is experiencing what can be seen as a revolution and, in doing so, is confronting a series of challenges. Strengthening measures have meant the availability of more information, increased access to facilities and other locations, and the enhanced use of advanced technology. Implementing these measures has demanded a period of rapid development, which is far from complete.

These challenges can be grouped into three areas:

• Drawing and maintaining safeguards conclusions.

• Designing and implementing integrated safeguards.

• Achieving cost neutrality while maintaining quality and credibility.

Security of nuclear material

In addition to the safeguards issues that are addressed later, the Department of Safeguards is also confronting new challenges related to the issue of nuclear security. Effective physical protection of nuclear material has always been recognised as a key component of the non-proliferation regime. The events of 11 September have demonstrated the organisational capabilities of contemporary terrorist groups and their willingness to inflict casualties on a huge scale. The traditional concern of nuclear proliferation by states has now been joined by another major concern: the illegal acquisition of nuclear and radioactive material by sub-national groups leading to the manufacture of nuclear or radiological weapons, and the threat of sabotage of nuclear facilities. These risks are not new, but the level of public awareness and concern has increased dramatically.

Since 1995, the IAEA has performed a range of activities aimed at increasing the capability of states to prevent sub-national, terrorist or criminal groups from acquiring nuclear and other radioactive materials. The IAEA is now in the process of strengthening its activities in these areas, and the Department of Safeguards, through its Security of Material programme, and through its application of safeguards to nuclear material, will play a central role. There will inevitably be consequences for departmental priorities and plans. These activities will present a major new challenge in addition to those already noted.

Stronger nuclear security

It is evident that the international dimensions of nuclear security demand stronger co-operation and co-ordination among States and international organisations. The IAEA is reinforcing its interactions with a number of organisations, including the WCO and Interpol, and increasing outreach to others, such as the United Nations Terrorism Prevention Branch and the United Nations Department of Disarmament Affairs.

At State level, the IAEA's joint work with national authorities resulted in putting into place the fundamental elements of a good national system for security of nuclear and radioactive material. In key areas, the IAEA can assist States seeking to upgrade security measures for nuclear and radioactive material. While the responsibility for a national programme rests with each State, nuclear security can only be as good as its weakest link.

IAEA's support extends to developing or preparing standards or guidelines; training personnel; and upgrading infrastructures to assist national authorities in the prevention, detection and response to acts of nuclear terrorism. For delivering such assistance, IAEA relies on well-tested channels of technical co-operation. The IAEA's close association with responsible national and international authorities, including customs and law enforcement organisations, has proved advantageous in many respects, sharing best practices and expertise, and by identifying priorities for joint action.

In the years ahead, co-operative efforts must address the full range of threats to nuclear security, recognising that:

• There is a wide spectrum of potential risks; they include nuclear weapons proliferation, theft of nuclear or other radioactive materials, and sabotage of nuclear facilities.

• There are different security risks when considering threats posed by hostile States or by 'sub-national' perpetrators, including individuals or groups of criminals and terrorists bent on inflicting mass casualties and death.

• Since risks are associated with different types of consequences, a graded approach is warranted to prioritise and counter threats.

To a large extent, future directions of IAEA's programme on the security of material rest on measures to strengthen international co-operation for upgrading nuclear security, including improved capabilities for intercepting and responding to illicit trafficking, and enhanced protection of facilities against terrorism and sabotage. It will be a difficult challenge for the IAEA and its Member States to consolidate all these measures into an integrated, efficient system, thereby ensuring that the security of nuclear and other radioactive material is woven into the infrastructure of nuclear safety and security programmes. Doing so will contribute significantly to national and global efforts to combat and reduce the multi-dimensional threats of nuclear terrorism.

Security upgrades

In response to new nuclear security threats, a range of specific actions should be considered urgently to strengthen and upgrade the physical protection of nuclear material and facilities. These can be grouped into two main categories - direct steps to implement security upgrades at specific facilities and to interdict nuclear smuggling; and steps to strengthen national and international security standards.

Every State with weapons-usable nuclear materials or high-consequence nuclear facilities should assess its security arrangements and regulations, upgrading where required. They should review their organisational arrangements to ensure that lines of authority and approaches to coordination for the different aspects of nuclear security are clear, and those in charge have adequate authority and resources.

USA and Russia should accelerate co-operative programmes to secure, monitor and reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons, plutonium and HEU; downsize nuclear complexes and re-employ nuclear weapons and materials experts; interdict nuclear smuggling; and control sensitive nuclear exports.

Other States should substantially expand their contributions, including measures to accelerate the blend-down of HEU, and to place excess weapons plutonium under international verification.

Substantial funding - at least several tens of millions of dollars for the upcoming year - should be provided to finance upgrades and assistance for sustaining high levels of security around the world.

There should be a drastic increase in physical protection training around the world. This training should include not only technical training, but discussion of the crucial role of such security in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and stopping nuclear terrorism.

The budget and personnel available to the IAEA's physical protection programmes should be drastically increased, making it possible to carry out a much larger number of missions to help member states improve security measures, and to provide more effective follow-up to such missions.

There should be greater international co-operation to reduce the number of sites around the world where HEU and separated plutonium are stored.

Every State with weapons-usable nuclear material should review, and strengthen as necessary, the accuracy and effectiveness of its State System of Accounting and Control (SSAC), as control and accounting systems are an important part of preventing and detecting insider theft.

Firms in the nuclear industry should drop their opposition to more stringent security standards: this opposition is 'penny wise and pound foolish'. While increased security measures will cost money, successful theft of nuclear material for a nuclear weapons programme, or successful catastrophic sabotage of a nuclear power plant, would be a gigantic disaster for the nuclear industry in all countries, wherever it occurred.

The nuclear industry should establish a co-operative industry organisation to improve security standards worldwide through peer review and assistance, comparable to the role WANO has played in improving nuclear safety.

All relevant States should undertake dramatically increased efforts to interdict nuclear smuggling and control sensitive nuclear exports.

Stronger security standards

In addition to immediate upgrades, strengthened standards are needed if security is to be improved consistently worldwide and sustained over a long period. These priorities extend to national standards and regulations, international recommendations and agreements, and transparency.

Every State with weapons-usable nuclear material or high-consequence nuclear facilities should incorporate design basis threats into its regulations. These threats should take into account the global reach of terrorist organisations.

National standards and regulations should include regular, realistic, independent testing of the performance of security systems in defeating intelligent, well-trained insider and outsider efforts to overcome them.

Every State with weapons-usable nuclear material or high-consequence nuclear facilities should take care to keep confidential details of its physical protection arrangements that would be useful to terrorists. At the same time, sufficient information should be made available to enable informed public debate and build public and international confidence that sufficient steps are being taken.

Voluntary peer reviews of physical protection arrangements, such as those organised in recent years by the IAEA's International Physical Protection Advisory Service, should become, over time, a regular, normal part of doing business in major nuclear facilities - just as safety peer reviews have become. Towards that end, major nuclear States such as the USA, France, Japan, Britain and Germany should not only provide greater funding for such peer reviews, but should invite peer reviews at selected facilities of their own.

Rethinking the nuclear threat

The September attacks require a fundamental rethinking of the threats that nuclear security systems must be designed to address. Countries around the world will now have to ask fundamental questions about what threats their nuclear facilities should be required to defend against. This should include how much they are willing to spend to provide security against large threats, and how much military force they are willing to put in place around civilian energy facilities. Questions that must be answered include:

• Is this a threat only against the USA, or is it more likely that all States that are large users of nuclear energy and holders of fissile material are also at risk?

• What, if anything, should be done to protect nuclear facilities from attack by large, fuel-laden aircraft? In the USA, the protection is supposed to withstand an accident from a small aircraft and was tested with attack by a small military jet. Many regulatory authorities had said that a crash of a large aircraft into a nuclear facility was never likely enough to warrant its inclusion in safety regulations. Can it now be assumed that this is still the case?

• How many people, with what level of training and weaponry, should design basis threats now include? What would be the cost of providing effective protection against threats from ground attack on the scale of the September attacks?

• Should facilities be protected against attackers arriving and departing by unconventional means designed to overcome delays at the perimeter, such as helicopters?

While this reconsideration has only just begun, a few things do seem clear already. First, high-consequence nuclear facilities should be designed to survive truck bomb attacks. Second, it is unsafe to rely on the assumption that there will be prior warning before an attack.

A new vision

The events of 11 September created a new world - a world in which we know that there are highly capable terrorist groups with global reach, bent on mass destruction. At the same time, the aftermath is demonstrating that we live in a world where far-reaching international co-operation toward common objectives can be a reality.

Securing the legacy

Global stockpiles of nuclear material are large and widespread. A decade after the end of the Cold War, there are still about 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world. More than 95% of them are in US and Russian arsenals. The world’s stockpiles of separated plutonium and HEU, the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons, are estimated to include some 450 tons of military and civilian separated plutonium, and over 1700 tons of HEU. Most of these weapons and materials are believed to be reasonably well accounted for and secured. But this is by no means universally the case. Levels of security and accounting for both the military and civilian material vary widely, with no binding international requirements in place for military material or for a great deal of civilian material in nuclear-weapon States. The only binding international security requirements for nuclear-weapon and for non nuclear-weapon States are for plutonium and HEU in international transport.

IAEA illicit trafficking database programme

About 70 States have joined the IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database Programme since it was set up in 1993. The programme aims to assist States by alerting them to incidents, facilitating exchange of reliable information, and identifying common threads or trends that might help States combat illicit trafficking. Information reported to the programme is treated confidentially, with reporting States being able designate what information may be shared with other States, and what can be shared publicly. For the period 1 January 1993 to 1 April 2001, the database recorded over 550 incidents, of which about two-thirds have been confirmed by States. Of these confirmed incidents, about half involved nuclear material. The frequency of confirmed incidents has grown in recent years. The number of cases per year in 1999 and 2000 were roughly double the 1996 value, with most of this growth connected with incidents involving radioactive sources. Of the confirmed incidents with nuclear material, one-third involved low-enriched uranium and 17 cases, or 10%, involved highly-enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. In most cases, the quantity of HEU and plutonium encountered is small compared with the amounts required for a nuclear explosive, although it should be kept in mind that even small quantities of materials sometimes may be samples of larger quantities available for purchase or at risk. After a three-year hiatus in incidents with HEU or plutonium during 1996-98, five such incidents were confirmed in the two years since April 1999, including the seizure in April 2000 of nearly a kilogram of HEU in the form of fast-reactor fuel pellets. For incidents with radioactive sources where the source strength has been reported, about one in six involved sources of one Curie (37 giga-Becquerel) or more. In 11 cases, the reported source strength exceeded 1000 giga-Becquerel, and eight of those 11 cases occurred during the last three years. Trafficking in nuclear material and other radioactive sources is a global concern, with confirmed cases recorded in over 40 countries on six continents. The majority of confirmed incidents involving nuclear material have occurred in Europe.

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