States Discuss Nuclear Security at IAEA

June 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

States met at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discuss nuclear security challenges and opportunities, but an objection from Iran prevented the participants from adopting a ministerial declaration with recommendations for strengthening the nuclear security regime.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Organization, speaks at the International Conference on Nuclear Security in Vienna on May 20. Iran blocked the conference from adopting a ministerial declaration with recommendations for strengthening the nuclear security regime.  (Photo by Dean Calma/IAEA)

The ministerial-level International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS), held May 20-24 in Vienna, provided a forum for more than 130 states to discuss challenges to nuclear security, promote collaborative efforts for enhancing nuclear security, and support the IAEA’s work in this area.

In opening remarks on May 20, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said the IAEA is “at the forefront of adapting nuclear security to new challenges” and referenced the role that the agency is playing in supporting nuclear security in Ukraine.

Grossi emphasized the importance of nuclear security “throughout all the steps of the nuclear fuel cycle” and described nuclear security as “part of the social contract that underpins the existence and growth of nuclear power.”

This meeting is the fourth ICONS conference and the first to conclude without a ministerial declaration. The conference focused on four themes: policy and regulations for nuclear security, technology for nuclear security detection and response, human capacity building, and cross-cutting nuclear security issues, such as the interface between security and safety.

After Iran’s objection, the co-presidents of the conference issued the draft ministerial declaration as a joint statement. Most participating states endorsed the statement in plenary remarks.

David Turk, U.S. deputy energy secretary, said the meeting comes at a time of “great change, both positive and negative” for global nuclear security efforts and described the lack of a ministerial declaration as “regrettable.” In a May 24 speech, Turk called for “renewed determination to protect nuclear facilities and material” and expressed U.S. support for the joint statement.

The joint statement calls on IAEA member states to ensure that highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium are “appropriately secured and accounted for” and encourages states to “further minimize HEU in civilian stocks” when feasible.

The statement emphasizes that “any attacks or threats of attacks against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes may compromise nuclear security” and highlights the importance of “addressing computer security risks” to protect against cyberattacks.

The statement also recognizes the challenges and benefits posed by emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, and the importance of international cooperation in addressing these issues. In addition to the commitments in the joint statement, many countries used the meeting as an opportunity to announce progress on national initiatives to strengthen nuclear security and make new commitments.

Since the ICONS meeting in 2020, the United States has assisted in the disposition of 160 kilograms of weapons-usable nuclear materials in foreign countries and hosted an IAEA mission to assess the physical security of a nuclear facility, Turk said. He noted that the United States continues to contribute to the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund and reiterated U.S. support for the agency’s nuclear security work.