Nuclear Security: The IAEA Faces the Future

May 2020
By Jessica Bufford

In 1972, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published a thin booklet titled “Recommendations for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.” It was the agency’s first publication on nuclear security, narrowly targeted at protecting nuclear material from theft or sabotage. Nearly 50 years later, nuclear security is a robust field covering a range of security issues and supported by a wide professional community. This was evident as the IAEA convened its third International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS), on February 10–14, 2020.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi (right) speaks at the opening of the NuSec Talks series at the agency's third International Conference on Nuclear Security on Feb. 11. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)As the world’s biggest conferences on nuclear security, the ICONS meetings offer an opportunity for policymakers and practitioners to review global nuclear security efforts, share best practices, and raise awareness about new technologies and challenges. Global leaders gather during the ministerial segment, issuing a declaration that will guide future IAEA work in the nuclear security space. In the technical segment of the conference, experts from around the world share experiences through presentations, side events, and informal networking opportunities. For nuclear security wonks, the ICONS conference is the place to see and be seen. Now that the 2020 conference is over, it is important to reflect on what was decided, what was said, and what was learned and to look forward to what comes next.

The Ministerial Segment

On the conference’s opening day, as participants prepared to hear ministerial statements, the energy and attitude in the halls of the IAEA were overwhelmingly positive, upbeat, and optimistic. The final ministerial declaration was adopted without any reservations from the floor—an important change from 2016, when the negotiation process and the declaration itself were divisive. More than 50 ministers attended the conference this year, representing the highest level of participation of any ICONS.1 Ministerial statements outlined progress made since the 2016 conference and new commitments to further nuclear security globally. IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi thanked states for expressing their dedication to nuclear security and emphasized his own prioritization of nuclear security.2

The ministerial declaration represents a modest but positive step forward.3 New language appeared recognizing that nuclear security “may enhance public confidence in the peaceful use of nuclear applications” which “contribute to Member States’ sustainable development.”4 This important addition highlights the broad scope of nuclear security and recognizes that heightened nuclear security can support development. Unfortunately, language cautioning states to ensure that “measures to strengthen nuclear security do not hamper” peaceful nuclear activities remained in the text, underscoring the tension between nuclear security and peaceful uses.

More positively, a number of other issues, such as reaffirming the central role of the IAEA and recognizing the contributions of industry to nuclear security, which had not been included in the 2016 declaration, were reintroduced in the 2020 declaration. Additionally, language encouraging the sharing of experiences, best practices, and lessons learned is stronger than in previous declarations. According to reports from the negotiating process, the co-chairs used a transparent, inclusive, and consensus-based approach to negotiations, which was instrumental to the successful adoption of the ministerial declaration. Multiple consultations over months worked to incorporate different perspectives, and the result was evident: the declaration had something for everyone, a sign of effective negotiation and good compromises.

Maintaining high-level attention will be a challenge for nuclear security in the coming decade. The nuclear security summits demonstrated that engaging leaders led to greater funding domestically and internationally for nuclear security, higher prioritization of nuclear security in many countries, and greater engagement at technical levels. Through the nuclear security summit process, for example, more than 1,500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium were eliminated or consolidated, including the total elimination of HEU from 13 states.5 Keeping that high-level attention over the long run will be a challenge, as leaders routinely must juggle challenges from many sectors, not to mention respond to emerging global crises, such as the pandemic the world is facing now. The next ICONS is scheduled for 2024, but some have raised concern about waiting so long before another high-level statement of some kind. With creativity, regional organizations or states may find opportunities to keep up momentum.

Slovenian police protect a ship-loading operation at the port of Koper on Nov. 21, 2010. Highly enriched uranium removed from a Serbian research reactor had been transferred to the port on its way to Russia for disposition. Under the nuclear security summit process, 13 nations eliminated their holdings of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium. (Photo: Greg Webb/IAEA)As the ministerial statement finished on the second day, the meeting’s 2,000 participants began to share information and best practices on day two. More than 50 technical sessions covered topics from legal frameworks to detection architecture to emerging technologies. These presentations allowed experts and government officials to share experiences, strengthening the international nuclear security regime through information exchanges. One unique aspect of ICONS is its assembly of experts from vastly different areas and communities into one conference. Participants could go from a session on reactor conversions and technical discussions about fuel specifications to brainstorming ways to improve education and information sharing through Nuclear Security Support Centers. Block chain was discussed alongside biometrics and alternative technologies for radioactive sources. Physical protection and border patrol experts rubbed shoulders with cybersecurity gurus, as people moved in and out of conference rooms, following the ebb and flow of presentations and coffee breaks.

In addition to the technical sessions, a record 30 side events gave participants a chance to learn more about educational programs for the next generation of experts, regional initiatives to strengthen nuclear security, and programs by intergovernmental organizations to facilitate information exchange. Representing more than 130 countries and 35 international organizations, ICONS participants exploited opportunities to catch key partners and colleagues in the hallways or the coffee shops to talk business. As one participant observed, more work gets done in one week of ICONS than in a normal two-month period.

Promoting Diversity

Diversity in nuclear security, a growing priority for many organizations and government offices in the field, emerged as a key theme of the conference. Through the declaration, ministers committed “to promote geographical diversity and gender equality” and encouraged member states to “establish an inclusive workforce within their national security regimes.” This is an important step forward for a male-dominated field that has struggled to increase female participation. An estimated 20 percent of the overall nuclear workforce is female, and that number is likely to be smaller in nuclear security.6 During the technical program, four side events highlighted the role of women in nuclear security, including a session organized by the IAEA and opened by Grossi. Plenty of male-dominated panels were scattered throughout the schedule, but the number of women walking the halls of the conference was encouraging.

Numerous other efforts highlighted unconventional voices throughout the conference. The IAEA broke new ground with its NuSec talks, modeled on TED Talks and featuring younger members of the community from diverse countries. These young leaders spoke about their personal experiences and perspectives on nuclear security. The United States, Nigeria, and the Netherlands hosted an event focused on the faces of nuclear security, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative displayed portraits of nuclear security practitioners throughout the conference space as part of the new Voices of Nuclear Security project.7

Outcomes and Next Steps

Despite many positive outcomes at the 2020 conference, much work remains. The emphasis on connections between nuclear security and sustainable development broadens the scope of work and necessitates more work to integrate nuclear security into these activities at a practical and technical level. More coordination within states and at the IAEA between frequently stovepiped communities is essential. For example, the ministerial declaration referenced norms related to minimizing the use of HEU, but Russia’s commercial HEU production activities could challenge those norms. Future developments in nuclear energy, including potential growth as more states explore nuclear power programs, also may lead to more material and facilities that will need protection over the long term, increasing demands on nuclear security.

Participants attend a 2014 IAEA Seminar on promoting the entry into force of the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. The amendment came into force two years later and is scheduled to be reviewed in 2021.  (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Policymakers should increase engagement with industry representatives. Some industry representatives participated as exhibitors, but very few presented in the technical programs. Although nuclear security is the responsibility of states, nuclear operators and industry participants are responsible for implementing security. Incorporating industry participants into nuclear security policy discussions will be essential to strengthening nuclear security in the coming years, as well as to providing valuable ground truth for concepts developed in conference centers and meeting rooms.

Grossi, who took the IAEA helm in December 2019, may also drive significant changes related to nuclear security at the agency. During the opening of the conference, he characterized the IAEA role in nuclear security as “indispensable” and committed to strengthening the agency’s assistance in nuclear security as a priority for his tenure. His commitment also was visible by his presence at the conference, speaking at side events and receptions and appearing at least four times during the first day of the technical session, even after the ministers had departed. His engagement has energized staff at the IAEA, and the overall atmosphere is optimistic.

The coming year also will see a change in the director of nuclear security because Director Raja Adnan is slated to retire. As the IAEA is still in the selection process for the new director, member states should be encouraging Grossi to seek an experienced, politically savvy, and energetic manager. Nuclear security will need an engaged advocate, skilled diplomat, and vocal networker to live up to the promises Grossi has already made, using the limited resources available.

One disappointing feature of the conference was seeing the clear lack of progress on resourcing the IAEA Division of Nuclear Security. The ministerial declaration will provide important guidance on the next Nuclear Security Plan, which outlines how the IAEA will spend funding from the Nuclear Security Fund (NSF), but member states will need to do more to realize Grossi’s goal of “mainstreaming” nuclear security into the overall work of the agency. Extrabudgetary contributions support most of the division’s activities and professional staff, but donor governments apply constraints and rarely provide multiyear funding. Because of these budget uncertainties and externally imposed constraints, the division faces significant risks and continuity challenges when planning their activities. Donors made significant contributions to the NSF during the 2020 conference, totaling more than $20 million,8 but this level of funding from member states is not guaranteed in future years. More regular budget funding would strengthen nuclear security. In a world of zero real-growth budgets for the IAEA, however, some states believe that increasing funding for nuclear security will decrease funding for other areas, such as technical cooperation.

The CPPNM Review Conference

The first review of the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) will take place in 2021 and provides the next major opportunity for the nuclear security community to gather and reflect on progress made and work still to be done. Preparing for the review has come with challenges because the review process as outlined in Article 16 of the amended CPPNM is sparse. It says only that the depositary (the IAEA) is obligated to convene a meeting of states-parties five years after the amendment’s entry into force to “review the implementation of this Convention and its adequacy as concerns the preamble, the whole of the operative part, and the annexes in the light of the then prevailing situation.”9 Unlike the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), where treaty negotiators left extensive instructions for the review process, CPPNM states-parties and the IAEA are creating a new review process with almost no guidance. In December 2018, participants in the CPPNM Points of Contact meeting requested that the IAEA convene a meeting of legal and technical experts to discuss preparations for the review. Two meetings held in 2019 proved to be invaluable in starting the review process. In these meetings, states were able to find suitable dates to hold the review, identify potential topics for inclusion on the agenda, and lay the foundation for key procedural decisions to be made at the preparatory meeting.

Yet, several important issues remain unresolved. First, at the review conference in 2021, state-parties will need to address follow-on review conferences. Only one review conference is mandated in Article 16, but regular review conferences provide an opportunity to review implementation of physical protection measures in light of an ever-changing environment. Such reviews also serve as important opportunities for information exchange, particularly because reviews of the amended CPPNM have a legal basis but other events like ICONS or the Point of Contact meetings are voluntary and not guaranteed to continue. Other major treaty regimes such as the CNS or the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty have robust review processes, and the amended CPPNM should be no different.10 States-parties should agree to hold regular review conferences, with each conference determining the date of the next one in order to deconflict with other related events.

Second, states-parties still need to agree on participation in the review process. Although the 2021 review was triggered by the entry into force of the amendment, more than 70 percent of the text is the same between the amendment and the original convention. As a result, some states that are party to the CPPNM but not its amendment are asserting that they have a right to fully participate in any discussions about any common text. The role of international organizations and nongovernmental organizations also has not been decided. Participation should be inclusive to reflect a diversity of views and encourage universalization, but it also should be fair, recognizing different levels of commitment to the amended CPPNM.

Lastly, states need to be preparing for the substance of the review in 2021. The Meeting of Legal and Technical Experts discussed potential outlines of national statements, but governments must do their homework and reflect nationally on their implementation. The amended CPPNM has a broad scope, and its review will require reflection on nuclear security regulations, relevant criminal codes, security measures at facilities, detection architectures at borders, information sharing mechanisms, and transportation arrangements. Implementation of these obligations requires participation of a broad range of stakeholders, and an effective national review will need to include all of these communities. This kind of preparation will be essential for a robust and substantive review and cannot be left to the last minute. States should consider using regional forums to exchange good practices on preparations for the review in 2021, identify important developments, and bring collective success stories and commitments to the broader group of states-parties.

Nuclear security has come a long way since that first short booklet in 1972. The 2020 ICONS demonstrated that nuclear security is a growing field with a strong community of practitioners. The conference also made clear that there is much work ahead. The amended CPPNM review conference in 2021 represents an immediate opportunity to continue forward momentum. Looking further into the future, the community must continue to work together to raise the importance of nuclear security and promote ongoing improvements as national capabilities and threats to nuclear and radiological material evolve.


1. Inna Pletukhina, “International Community Meets to Reaffirm Common Commitment for Strengthening Nuclear Security,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), February 10, 2020,

2. “Director General's Statement at International Conference on Nuclear Security: Sustaining and Strengthening Efforts,” IAEA, February 10, 2020,

3. Samantha Neakrase, “ICONS 2020: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly ... Actually, Mostly Good,” Atomic Pulse, March 5, 2020,

4. 2020 International Conference on Nuclear Security, “Ministerial Declaration,” n.d.,

5. Michelle Cann, Kelsey Davenport, and Jenna Parke, “The Nuclear Security Summit: Accomplishments of the Process,” Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security, March 2016, p. 1,

6. “Gender and Nuclear Security: Challenges and Opportunities,” WINS Special Report Series, July 2019.

7. For more information on Voices of Nuclear Security, see

8. Inna Pletukhina, “Countries to Provide US$ 20 Million to IAEA Nuclear Security Fund,” IAEA, February 17, 2020,

9. Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities, July 8, 2005, (unofficial consolidated text).

10. For more information on the preparations for the 2021 review conference, see Samantha Neakrase, “Strengthening Nuclear Security With a Sustainable CPPNM Regime,” Arms Control Today, July 2019.


Jessica Bufford is a program officer for the Materials Risk Management program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.