By Kelsey Davenport
Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held its first ministerial-level meeting on nuclear security, the International Conference on Nuclear Security: Enhancing Global Efforts. The purpose of the high-level conference was to strengthen and bring greater global attention to nuclear security and inform the agency's nuclear security plan for 2014-2017. However, after producing a ministerial declaration with lowest common denominator language, "Encouraging Global Efforts" may have been a better title.
The consensus ministerial declaration endorsed by 125 participating states at the conference used the word "encourage" 15 times in just over four pages. Similar to other consensus documents on nuclear security (most notably those from the Nuclear Security Summit process) the recommendations for actions were blunted by numerous caveats that called on states to take action "on a voluntary basis" or "when appropriate."
In short, while the conference clearly "encouraged" states to strengthen nuclear security and laid out suggested actions to do so, it is difficult to determine across the board if nuclear security will be "enhanced" at the international level as a result of the conference.
The lack of commitments to take bold action was particularly disappointing given the strong statements made by the IAEA's Director-General Yukiya Amano on the need to translate "good intentions to concrete action" ahead of the conference. In a June 28 op-ed, Amano recommended that all countries allow peer reviews of their nuclear security by international experts, calling this action a "no-brainer" that has been shown to produce positive results.
Amano reiterated the call for peer reviews in his July 1 statement at the opening of the conference, saying that "all countries should invite peer review of their nuclear security arrangements" noting the good track record of these reviews in improving nuclear safety at power plants.
He also called for making use of the IAEA nuclear security guidance recommendations and entry into force of the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM). When in force, this convention will extend physical protection requirements for storage, transport, and use of nuclear materials. Currently 68 countries have ratified the amendment; 99 ratifications are necessary for entry into force. In his op-ed, Amano called the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM a "crucial nuclear security instrument" whose ratification should be at the "top of the agenda."
Hopefully the U.S. Senate was listening to this recommendation, and will finally move on legislation passed by the House of Representatives in May 2013 that will allow the United States to complete ratification of this important treaty, which President Obama committed to at the first Nuclear Security Summit.
According to Amano, progress made in these three "key areas" will quickly improve global nuclear security.
Unfortunately, the language in the ministerial declaration watered down the emphasis that Amano put on these actions. True, it is not Amano's job to make policy for the agency, but it is unfortunate that the opinions of member states lag so far behind his recommendations. The declaration encouraged states to make use of IAEA peer review services on a "voluntary basis" and to take IAEA guidance into account "where appropriate" and invited states to "become party to and fully implement" the CPPNM 2005 amendments and other related treaties. And throughout the week, a common theme echoed in many of the 69 national statements was that nuclear security is the responsibility of individual states and there would be resistance to binding international obligations in this area.
Despite the shortcomings of the ministerial document, it is worth mentioning what the statement does accomplish. As a consensus declaration supported by all 125 participating countries, it demonstrates a broader political commitment to nuclear security as compared to the nuclear security summit process, which includes only 53 countries.
The conference and declaration also confer greater legitimacy on the role that the IAEA plays in strengthening nuclear security. Under the IAEA statute, nuclear security is not clearly defined as a role of the agency, and the Office of Nuclear Security in the agency does not have the prominence or resources of the agency's designated departments. Language in the ministerial statement, however, by affirming the IAEA's "central role" in "strengthening the nuclear security framework" and "leading coordination in international activities in the field of nuclear security" goes a long way in recognizing the agency's role in this area and its future development.
The declaration also specifically urged further voluntary contributions to the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund. Again, while this is only an encouraged action, it will hopefully lead to more regular and sustained funding for nuclear security activities without conditions attached to contributions by member states.
Currently, the vast majority of funding for the Office of Nuclear Security is made up of extra-budgetary contributions – which a May 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office flagged as a problem. The GAO report noted that extra-budgetary contributions for nuclear security activities make it "difficult to plan and implement projects" because funding varies year to year and countries earmark donations with specific conditions.
Additionally, while states were not asked to commit to specific actions in the ministerial declaration, the activities encouraged in the statement would positively impact nuclear security, if carried out. These activities -- including minimizing the use of nuclear materials specifically highly-enriched uranium, sharing information on implementation of nuclear security instruments, and establishing nuclear forensics databases -- would strengthen nuclear security in a piecemeal fashion.
Action on nuclear security at the state level, however, is not enough. While nuclear security is a state responsibility, the international community needs to move away from the current patchwork of voluntary initiatives and recommendations. States need to work together to build a stronger and more effective international nuclear security governance system, because nuclear security and the threat of nuclear terrorism are global concerns. If one state fails to secure its radioactive materials the consequences could be catastrophic and global. An act of nuclear terrorism will impact every country, regardless of where it takes place.
The ministerial declaration called on the IAEA to consider organizing an international conference on nuclear security every three years. While Amano refused to speculate as to what the IAEA hopes will be accomplished at the 2016 meeting, the member states supportive of a stronger international security framework should use the intervening years to build support for bolder action. The Nuclear Security Summit process could be coming to an end in 2016 and the IAEA conferences and work in this area will become even more important.
The 2013 meeting was a good first step – it affirmed the IAEA's central role in strengthening nuclear security and delivered a high-level political commitment from 125 states to the importance of this issue. Looking forward to 2016, the IAEA and participating states need to capitalize on this consensus and commit to undertake specific actions. Nuclear security may be a national responsibility, but it's global consequences demand that the international community take bolder steps. It is time to move from encouragement to action in order to truly enhance global efforts in nuclear security.