ICONic failure to recognise nuclear security faults

In the midst of last month, the United Nations nuclear promotional and watchdog body, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) hosted an International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS 2020). ICONS Vienna followed earlier high-level IAEA nuclear security meetings held in 2013 and 2016. You could be forgiven for having missed it, as media attention was minimal, notwithstanding the crucial importance to worldwide security of the matters discussed and decided upon. Dr David Lowry explains.

IAEA held a conference on Nuclear Security in Feburary (CC BY-SA 2.0, IAEA Imagebank)

Ministers at ICONS 2020 – which attracted about 1900 participants from more than 130 countries – agreed on the importance of effective international legal instruments for strengthening global nuclear security.

The IAEA issued lots of positive statistics about ICONs, pouring out of the media briefing office like bratwurst from the sausage machine.

The accompanying Ministerial Declaration said, inter alia, “We remain concerned about existing and emerging nuclear security threats and committed to addressing such threats …”

Federico Alfaro, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Panama and Co-President of ICONS added: “In the coming years, global stocks of nuclear material are expected to continue growing  …We cannot allow for such material to fall into the wrong hands.”

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told an ICONS ministerial side event:

“A nuclear security incident in one country could have effects far beyond that country’s borders, so it is vital that all of us remain ahead of the curve in guarding against nuclear terrorism and other malicious acts.”

Nuclear explosive material can and does go missing

Perhaps the most alarming element of ICONS was the disclosure of the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB).

It revealed that the Bottom of Form

IAEA last year received notifications of nearly 190 incidents of nuclear and other radioactive material being out of regulatory control, including some cases of trafficking and other criminal activities.

IAEA stresses that “with 140 participating States, the database plays an important role in fostering international cooperation and information sharing among countries. By reporting lost or stolen material to the ITDB, countries increase the chances of its recovery and reduce the opportunities for it to be used in criminal activities. The information is shared with the IAEA, other Member States and relevant international organizations supporting the retrieval of lost or stolen material and the prosecution of suspected criminals.”

In 2019, 189 incidents were reported by 36 States, indicating that unauthorized activities and events involving nuclear and other radioactive material, including incidents of trafficking and malicious use, continue to occur. Six of the incidents were related to trafficking or malicious use, continuing a slight downward trend since a peak of 20 such incidents around 15 years ago. Over the last ten years, the average number of incidents submitted to the ITDB has been 185 per year.

Since 1993, 3686 incidents have been reported to the ITDB, of which 290 involved a confirmed or likely act of trafficking or malicious use. Twelve of those incidents included high enriched uranium and two included plutonium. Radioactive sources continue to be reported as stolen or missing, underscoring the need to improve security measures for such sources, especially during transport.

IAEA: propagandist and protector

IAEA’s relatively new Director-General Grossi – probably unintentionally – revealed the dynamic tension IAEA has in both promoting and regulating nuclear power, in saying in his remarks to open ICONS: “We live in a world in which nuclear activities are growing in a very sustained way. The number of nuclear power plants, laboratories and locations dealing with nuclear material is increasing. This is a magnet for groups with malicious intent, which see in this material a possibility to create panic and bring distress and pain to our societies. Nuclear security is about more than just preventing nuclear terrorism. It is essential for ensuring that countries can enjoy the great benefits of the peaceful use of nuclear science and technology sustainably, and for maintaining public confidence. Maintaining the highest levels of nuclear security should not be seen as an obstacle to using nuclear technology, but rather as an enabler.”

Funding the avoiding of atomic Armageddon

The IAEA’s international community, recognizing collective action against transfrontier nuclear security threats requires collective international action. To this effect, an International Nuclear Security Fund has been established.

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The IAEA reported at the conclusion of ICONS, countries announced or confirmed a total of more than US $20 Million to the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund (NSF), as they reaffirmed their commitment to sustaining and strengthening nuclear security globally. D-G Grossi in his closing remarks said “The pledges of contribution to the NSF is an indication of the political commitment, [as well as of the] seriousness of the mission and the gravity of the challenges.”

Raja Raja Adnan, Director for the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Security, added “The Nuclear Security Plan responds to priorities Member States have expressed. The Nuclear Security Plan 2022-2025 will be informed by the recommendations from the five high-level panels and 55 technical sessions held during ICONS 2020.”

In other side events held in the margins of ICONS 2020, participants discussed the prevention and detection of trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive material, challenges of securing nuclear fuel during transport, integrating safety and security in the management of disused sealed radioactive sources, the development of regulatory infrastructure, and challenges in defining nuclear security in every language.

Flawed entrance of the new “Global Britain”

In his speech to ICONS, the British minister Nadhim Zahawi asserted “an attack against a nuclear facility, or using radioactive materials, could severely harm people, our prosperity and the environment. It would damage public acceptance of nuclear technologies with far-reaching consequences,” before announcing that the UK was to add £1.6m to the international nuclear security fund.

How seriously does minister Zahawi – and the government he represents – take his own warning?

By contrast to the £1.6m set aside for nuclear security protection, what other recent expenditures on the nuclear sector in the UK have been announced? Last October, the U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, pledged £220m of new resources for fusion R&D.

Last November the UK energy department committed an additional an initial £36m for small modular reactor (SMR) development. This was on top what the energy department (BEIS) told Parliament in March 2019 of up to £56m “being made available to support the development of advanced modular reactors, including up to £44m for a Feasibility and Development Project and £12m for the Office of Nuclear Regulation and Environment Agency to build the necessary capability.”

You can see from comparing these amounts – £1.6m for nuclear security contrasted with £312m collectively for news fusion and SMR development – just where nuclear security resides in the U.K. government hierarchy of nuclear priorities. Sad but very obvious completely skewed priorities, reflecting the power of the nuclear lobby, that has failed in its mission to launch a nuclear renaissance, but has convinced under-informed ministers to throw huge amounts of new R&D resources to keep a dying industry alive, while neglecting the real challenges of nuclear insecurities.

Trans-Atlantic knowledge gaps over innovative new nuclear designs (SMRs/ANTs)

At ICONS, Jeremy Edwards, business manager of NNL (UK National Nuclear Laboratory) informed Dr Ed Lyman, Senior Global Security Scientist of the US Union of Concerned Scientists about the UK using the AVERT vulnerability assessment software. Dr Lyman said that disturbingly, Edwards erroneously “claimed had received extensive accreditation by the US DOE” — to ‘optimize’ – i.e. reduce — security at nuclear facilities. Lyman corrected this, pointing out that DOE did not actually accredit the software for most of the applications that he discussed.

Another British contributor, Dan Hasted – Lead Security Regulator for Sellafield, Dounreay, Plutonium, & Transport – at the UK nuclear regulator, Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) presented a paper in Vienna under the banner:

“Nuclear security of new nuclear technologies (e.g. small modular reactors)” in the session on Nuclear Security: Supporting And Enabling The Peaceful Use Of Nuclear Power – Portability Of Competent Authority’s Assessment Activity To Third Party States.

Hasted both promoted innovative regulation and the early deployment of SMRs, which, as an independent regulator, it may be argued is out of place. Surely regulators must remain studiously neutral towards the merits of nuclear technology deployment.

In his opening comments, he mused: “Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and other Advanced Nuclear Technologies (ANTs) offer potential advantages in respect of being quickly deployable and requiring lower capital investments.”

He then added ”It is not the Competent Authority (CA)’s role to promote nuclear power but can the CA community remove barriers by working together?,” and pondered “Does the importing CA start from a zero base assessment of the security characteristics and required physical protection or does it take account of the assessment activity of the exporting CA? If so, to what extent?”

He concluded, asserting: “The overall aim is for the security community, which has for long been perceived as a blocker, to enable and support…adding “Greater collaboration between CAs could enable the potential modularisation, rapidly deployable and scalable nature of the next generation of reactors to be realised.”

Regulators elide into promoters with such conclusions!


senior international research fellow at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA

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