Nonproliferation
Commentary

Nuclear Security in Review, 2020

2020 presented numerous challenges to nuclear security, including the shift to primarily remote operations and sustaining international cooperation

Nuclear operators and regulators faced unprecedented challenges over the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic not only tested nuclear security systems, but also international institutions dedicated to reducing nuclear terrorism threats. Looking forward, the upcoming Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Amendment (CPPNM/A) Review Conference will provide an opportunity for states to share lessons learned and how international institutions can be better prepared for the next crisis.

International Conference on Nuclear Security: Sustaining and Strengthening Efforts 2020

The IAEA played a central role in supporting nuclear security cooperation and information sharing throughout 2020, especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. On February 10-14, IAEA hosted the International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS) 2020 where experts, policymakers, and government officials reflected on nuclear security progress and future directions, with the threat of nuclear terrorism looming large throughout these convenings. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi emphasized that the global threat posed by nuclear terrorism, even in countries where there is little to no nuclear materials, continues to grow and all member states must remain vigilant.1Luis Eduardo Pabon Chevalier, “2020 International Conference on Nuclear Security: Sustaining and Strengthening Efforts,” February 14, 2020, (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/20/06/cn-278-president-report.pdf, (accessed December 28, 2020) The Ministerial Declaration endorsed by more than 140 states recapitulated2International Atomic Energy Agency, “IAEA Ministerial Conference Commits to Strengthening Nuclear Security Amid Concerns About Global Threats,” (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/iaea-ministerial-conference-commits-to-strengthening-nuclear-security-amid-concerns-about-global-threats (accessed January 19, 2021). Director General Grossi’s statements on strengthening nuclear security measures within all member states. The declaration focused on enduring and emerging issues such as supporting universal adoption of the CPPNM/A, strengthening of insider threat mitigation and nuclear security culture, promoting gender equality, and recognizing the growth of cyber threats at nuclear facilities. Most notably, the declaration emphasized the leadership and coordination role that the IAEA plays in member state capacity building and best practice sharing. Member states were also encouraged to contribute to IAEA peer reviews and advisory services.3International Atomic Energy Agency, “International Conference on Nuclear Security: Sustaining and Strengthening Efforts, 10-14 February 2020, Ministerial Declaration,” (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/20/02/cn-278-ministerial-declaration.pdf (accessed December 29, 2020).

Another step forward took place with the launch of the Advancing Insider Threat Mitigation (INFCIRC/908) International Working Group (IWG) at ICONS 2020. Formed in response to and in support of INFCIRC/908, “Joint Statement on Mitigating Insider Threats,” which is endorsed by more than 30 countries, and a product of the 2019 International Symposium on Insider Threat Mitigation in Brussels, the IWG seeks to raise awareness of the significant and unique threats posed by insiders while sharing best practice guidance on how to best mitigate insider threats.4Advancing Insider Threat Mitigation (INFCIRC/908) International Working Group, “Terms of Reference,” (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), http://insiderthreatmitigation.org/assets/docs/010_IWG_Terms_of_Reference_v-07.pdf (accessed December 28, 2020). To this end, the INFCIRC/908 IWG published a revision of the “Preventive and Protective Measures against Insider Threats” guidance, incorporating member state experience and lessons learned since its original 2008 publication.5International Atomic Energy Agency, “N0. 8-G (Rev. 1) Preventive and Protective Measures against Insider Threats,” January 2020, (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), https://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/PUB1858_web.pdf (accessed December 28, 2020).  

COVID-19 Response

Arguably, the most impactful nuclear security event was the COVID-19 pandemic. These impacts have forced nuclear operators and regulators to make significant changes to their work due to staffing reductions, changes in approach to regulatory oversight, and increased concerns about security.6Sinead Harvey, “Regulators Use Innovative Methods to Assess Safety of Radiation Sources during COVID-19 Pandemic, IAEA Survey Finds,” (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/regulators-use-innovative-methods-to-assess-safety-of-radiation-sources-during-covid-19-pandemic-iaea-survey-finds (accessed December 28, 2020).The crisis spurred swift public health measures that forced some employees at nuclear facilities to move to remote environments for operations and regulators to change their approach.7World Nuclear News, “Nuclear Regulators Examine Response to Pandemic,” May 20, 2020, https://world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Nuclear-regulators-examine-response-to-pandemic (accessed December 28, 2020).Numerous countries have postponed scheduled outages related to refueling or refurbishment.8William Tobey, Simon Saradzhyan, and Nickolas Roth, “Maintaining Nuclear Safety and Security during the COVID-19 Crisis,” Russia Matters, April 16, 2020, https://russiamatters.org/analysis/maintaining-nuclear-safety-and-security-during-covid-19-crisis (accessed December 28, 2020). In cases where staff have been infected, whole shifts have been quarantined and “the conditions for reactor shutdown have been reviewed.”9Atoms for Peace and Development Board of Governors, “The Operation, Safety and Security of Nuclear and Radiation Facilities and Activities during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), p. 6, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/20/06/govinf2020-8.pdf (accessed December 28, 2020). Maintenance and surveillance procedures are being reviewed to determine which activities could be postponed without impacting safety or reliability.10Atoms for Peace and Development Board of Governors, “The Operation, Safety and Security of Nuclear and Radiation Facilities and Activities during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” pp. 5-6.

In June, the IAEA released a report outlining how the agency is supporting best practice exchanges and providing platforms where regulators can seek guidance.11Atoms for Peace and Development Board of Governors, “The Operation, Safety and Security of Nuclear and Radiation Facilities and Activities during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”The International Reporting System for Operating Experience for nuclear power plants, the Incident Reporting System for Research Reactors, and the COVID19 Operating Experience Network (COVID-19 OPEX Network) were thus established to better support nuclear security best practice exchanges.12Atoms for Peace and Development Board of Governors, “The Operation, Safety and Security of Nuclear and Radiation Facilities and Activities during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” p. 2.Regulators report they have had to apply a “graded approach” adjusting “the scope of regulatory inspections based on their safety significance.”13Atoms for Peace and Development Board of Governors, “The Operation, Safety and Security of Nuclear and Radiation Facilities and Activities during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” pp. 5-6.The nuclear industry has described the pandemic as a “wake up call.”14World Nuclear News, “Nuclear Regulators Examine Response to Pandemic.”

The 64th IAEA General Conference

Nuclear security also featured prominently at the 64th IAEA General Conference. Director General Grossi, in demonstrating his commitment to and acknowledgement of the central role the IAEA in strengthening nuclear security, called for full adherence and implementation of the CPPNM/A. Director General Grossi emphasized that coming into compliance with the CPPNM/A will help member states better harmonize national legislation covering nuclear materials misuse. This focus on national regulation and compliance with the CPPNM/A signaled to member states that greater cooperation is needed to strengthen international nuclear security norms and prevent the growing threat of nuclear terrorism.15Inna Pletukhina and Katherine Tajer, “Call to Action: Strengthened Nuclear Security through the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its Amendment,” September 21, 2020, (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/call-to-action-strengthened-nuclear-security-through-the-convention-on-the-physical-protection-of-nuclear-material-and-its-amendment (accessed December 28, 2020).

A noteworthy side event called the “NuSec Talks: Security through Law” focused on how national legal frameworks are key to CPPNM/A implementation. The presentations were held in a TEDx format, during which speakers emphasized how legal frameworks help combat illicit trafficking and diversion of nuclear materials in transit and prevent nuclear terrorism through the universal adoption of the CPPNM/A.16International Atomic Energy Agency, “IAEA NuSec Talks – Security through Law,” September 30, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bc9fWMhifU8 (accessed December 29, 2020).At the conclusion of the 64th General Conference, member states adopted of a series of resolutions,17International Atomic Energy Agency, “64th IAEA General Conference: 21-25 September 2020, Vienne International Centra, Vienna, Agenda,” 2020, (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2020), https://www.iaea.org/about/governance/general-conference/gc64/agenda (accessed December 28, 2020). including the launch of a new initiative to support countries in the accounting and control of nuclear material for the purpose of safeguards.18Homeland Security Today, “IAEA Launches New Initiative to Strengthen Accounting and Control of Nuclear Material,” Homeland Security Today, September 23, 2020, https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/infrastructure-security/iaea-launches-new-initiative-to-strengthen-accounting-and-control-of-nuclear-material/ (accessed December 28, 2020).

U.S. Elections

The November 2020 U.S. presidential election is likely to have a significant impact on international nuclear security. The Trump administration’s stated policies on strengthening international nuclear security have been positive, but U.S. nuclear security leadership and international momentum behind this effort has declined in recent years. The Biden presidency represents an opportunity to renew that leadership. Having served as vice-president during the nuclear security summit process, President-elect Biden understands the importance of this issue, stating in 2017, “nuclear weapons—the proliferation of this deadly knowledge to more nations, and the possibility of a terrorist obtaining nuclear materials—remain among our most pressing security challenges.”19https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/12/remarks-vice-president-nuclear-security

Looking Ahead: CPPNM/A Rev Con and End of Pandemic

The upcoming year presents many opportunities for generating momentum in nuclear security cooperation while taking stock of lessons learned through the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic has shown the nuclear security field, there is a need for sustainable and consistent nuclear security cooperation. The 2021 CPPNM/A Review Conference provides an opportunity to discuss how Nuclear Security Recommendations on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities (INFCIRC/225) can be more comprehensive, supporting flexibility and adaptation to quickly changing circumstances, such as the move from in-person to almost exclusively remote and online operations. Best practice sharing is even more important as countries are grappling with how to conduct remote inspections and peer reviews that assure the same level of quality and performance standards that in-person assessments offer.20Inna Pletukhina and Katherine Tajer, “Call to Action: Strengthened Nuclear Security through the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its Amendment.” And, as the establishment of the IWG shows, insider threats especially in the cyber space are receiving greater attention as the pandemic forces continued remote operations. When in-person operations resume, the nuclear security community will be faced with enduring and emerging threats: the pandemic is a test of the current nuclear security international framework, highlighting lessons for the community to adopt before the next crisis.

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